Info Alert

Officers, Schools and Institutional Racism - Part 1

A Critical Look at School Safety, Discipline and the Role of School Resource Officers

Officers, Schools and Institutional Racism - Part 1

“We live in a time when we just say, ‘Suspend them, get rid of them.’”  –Tunette Powell
Tunette Powell is an award-winning motivational speaker and author. In July 2014, her two sons were suspended from their preschool, which she attributed to overly harsh and racially biased discipline.


Implementing “zero tolerance” policies through school discipline follows the perspective of the “get tough on drugs” policies of earlier decades. Criminal justice has become embedded in the school system, taking a stance to prevent and police in punitive ways. Common perceptions from the not-so-recent past such as slavery, Jim Crow and the “Super Predator” portray young people of color as criminal, disabled or in need of surveillance. Increased surveillance, particularly by law enforcement, has led to increased punishment. Punishments include actions such as punitive school discipline, school pushout and increased involvement in the criminal justice system. Police forces have also claimed a role in helping to re-route these so-called delinquent youths by being “hard on crime,” especially for youth of color. So-called crimes sometimes include loitering, spitting, showing up in the “wrong” neighborhood, and looking suspicious or breaking curfew.

Racial Integration

From 1945-1968 schools began the process of racial integration. Police and schools partnered to introduce police officers into schools to make schools safer. The first School Resource Officer, or SRO, was introduced to a secondary school in Flint, Michigan, in 1958. In the following years schools and officers across the nation began initiating similar partnerships.  The summer of 1967 brought a series of protests in cities, deemed riots by responding police, that resulted in the 1968 Kerner Commission Investigation and Report. The Kerner Commission documented that the violence was often begun by incoming officers, and that the tension within these neighborhoods was a healthy reaction to a toxic, exploitive environment. The report documented and forecasted “continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.” Schools became the focus of racial tension, and militarized police were called in to monitor and diffuse violence that erupted on school campuses.

SRO programs continued to grow, disproportionately policing schools with greater proportions of people of color. In the 1990s more funding was allocated to schools to expand or begin a SRO program, along with Zero Tolerance policies. In practice, this policing was more punitive in schools with students of color.

Disciplinary Actions

Schools often use disciplinary actions such as suspending and expelling students as a form of punishment to redirect unwanted behavior during school. Many schools are enforcing a zero tolerance policy, where school officials hand down specific, consistent and harsh punishment when students break certain rules. Students who are forced out of school for disruptive behavior are often sent to equally problematic environments, such as their homes or neighborhoods, which contain equally hostile surveillance and opportunity for increased punishment. Research shows that students who are constantly expelled or suspended tend to drop out of school and start to be policed for crimes, which leads to involvement in the criminal justice system and incarceration.

Role of Police in Education Systems

Schools are now treating some students as criminals by allowing them to be handcuffed at school or by officers using excessive force to discipline them. An eighth grader was locked up for throwing skittles on a school bus. A 6-year-old girl was handcuffed for taking candy from a teacher’s desk. An officer slammed and dragged a high school girl because she wouldn’t put her phone down. A Texas police officer choked a 14-year-old boy over a shoving match in school. A middle school student was suspended and charged for allegedly stealing a carton of milk from a cafeteria . This is an example of the school-to-prison pipeline, where students are treated like criminals for non-criminal behavior.

Officers in School

Physical actions that officers are taking often contradict the purpose of school and do not encourage critical thinking and learning. Further, conversations with both students and officers reveal that officers do not feel equipped to work with students in school environments in ways that advance equity. Sometimes officers are called on to fill roles that might be better performed by people with other training; such as helping homeless and highly mobile students locate emergency housing (social worker or housing advocate), or working as a “reading buddy” in classrooms (paraprofessional or inclusion specialist).

Officers are welcomed into schools with the mission of “safety promotion, legal education and discipline.” However, the introduction of police officers in schools assumed that their behavior was just, fair and equitable in interpreting the experiences of young people within the context of school. There is very little existing documentation that officers actually increase students’ feelings of safety and decrease discipline for students. 

Focus on Children

Today school resource officers focus on the children within the schools. Due to this focus, as well as the racialized history of the policing profession, researchers wanted to understand if officers were succeeding at making schools safer for students and decreasing discipline. They found that school resource officers do not increase student safety by their presence. They also found that police presence is significantly higher in communities of color. Additionally, more positive student perceptions of SROs are correlated with students experiencing fewer school disciplines. So, the more students like their officer, the less likely they are to experience discipline—less so, however, for students of color.

Click Here.Read Part 2 of this Info Alert: "The Minnesota Student Survey"

Preventing the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Zero tolerance policies were intended to make schools safer places to learn. But researchers have not found any conclusive evidence that these policies have been effective at doing that. Research has also consistently shown that suspending students makes them more likely to drop out of school and get entangled in the juvenile justice system. In order to prevent the school-to-prison pipeline cycle, it is recommended that parents learn about their child’s rights at every stage of the discipline process, including rights under the constitution and under federal law for students with disabilities.

Utilizing restorative practices in the child’s life could help redirect unwanted behavior, for example by offering after-school programs. During former President Barack Obama’s tenure, he created a program called My Brother’s Keeper. The vision of this program is to ensure all of the nation’s boys and young men of color have equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity. After-school programs and community engagement increase positive health and academic outcomes for youth; for example by activism through local campaigns about issues interesting to young people. The future for youth is limitless, and achieving an education is what is going to prepare our young people for the next chapters in their lives. We can help by being a mentor and  a voice, being the change and helping to put an end to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Christen Pentek, M.S.W, is a contributing author.  

Posted or updated: 1/8/2018 12:00:00 AM
Give Thanks. Give Now.

Click Here.Read Part 2 of this Info Alert: "The Minnesota Student Survey"

Suggested Pages:

*Action Alerts

*Racial Justice and Mass Incarceration

Take Action:

Contact your local congressional representative at the Capital Switchboard (202-224-3121) or their district office to voice your support for:
  • H.R.160 -The General Education Provisions Act to prohibit the Department of Education from providing funding to any state or local educational agency that allows its school personnel to inflict corporal punishment upon a student.
  • S.860 - The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2017. This landmark legislation supports local and state efforts to prevent delinquency and improve the juvenile justice system. 

Know your child’s rights:

Learn how to prevent the school to prison pipeline:

Read More:


  • Read "The Social Community" (Chapter 162 A. III) in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church
Facebook Tweet It Pin It
Give Now
Email It Print It