Aggressive Policing: A Problem in Schools?

In the past few years, conversations around aggressive policing and police brutality have increasingly garnered national headlines, with special attention around cases like Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray and Sandra Bland showing the intricate relationship between law enforcement and racial and class dynamics. Still, discussions around the relationship between these issues and schools are lacking.

The surfacing of a recent video from South Carolina, showing the violent arrest of a high school student has caused many to pay more attention to discipline in schools over the last couple of days, especially in regard to its connections with law enforcement. While this video sparked national headlines, thousands of students are arrested every year, and many people are unaware.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, 260,000 students were referred to law enforcement and 92,000 were arrested in the 2011-2012 school year alone. With so many students touching hands with law enforcement, is there a problem?

The number of school-related arrests is often linked to the proliferation of "zero-tolerance" policies in education. Zero-tolerance policies represent those that strike immediate consequences for any kind of misbehavior by students, regardless of the circumstances, as often seen when law enforcement becomes involved.

While some laud zero-tolerance policies for teaching discipline and consequences, studies in the last few years have increasingly emphasized its problems. According to a Fact Sheet from NASP (National Association of School Psychologists), "as implemented, zero tolerance policies are ineffective in the long run and are related to a number of negative consequences, including increased rates of school drop out and discriminatory application of school discipline practices."

The consequences of these policies stretch beyond dropping out of school, often pushing more students into the school-to-prison pipeline and increasing chances of incarceration as adults. According to an ACLU article, "Overly harsh disciplinary policies push students down the pipeline and into the juvenile justice system."

A number of studies also relate harsh disciplinary measures with identity of students. For example, according to U.S. Department of Education's data, black students represent 16% of student enrollment, yet 31% of school-related arrests. In addition, disabled students represent a quarter of school-related arrests, while only making up 12% of the school population. These numbers show how aggressive policing in schools disproportionately target students based on their identity, especially in regards to race and disabled status.

In response to the arrest of the South Carolina teen, many argue that the situation likely wouldn't have escalated to the same point, if the student were white instead of black.

The teen's arrest also sparks conversation around what behaviors actually qualify for police intervention and how those determinations disproportionately affect some. According to reports, the officer was initially called in because the girl wouldn't leave her classroom after being disrespectful and not turning off her phone, actions that wouldn't result in police intervention for adults.

Why do these actions not constitute criminal behavior for adults in everyday life, yet they do for teens in school? The answer lies in whether or not we, as a society, think teens should suffer different consequences than adults. Sure, this teenager obviously was disruptive, but does being disruptive as a teenager constitute criminal offense?

In the past, these policies of overaggressive policing in schools have been called into question, showing that this isn't the first time. For example, in 2008, legislation was introduced in New York City, in response to similar events occurring in the city, at large. The act sought to increase transparency in school-related arrests, in an attempt to stop unnecessary police involvement.

These circumstances beg the question, should guidelines be set in schools and law enforcement agencies about when intervention becomes necessary?

When talking about whether or not an officer should be called in to discipline a student, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said, "That is something for the district to answer." While schools set their own discipline guidelines, shouldn't law enforcement agencies be involved in setting the guidelines for their involvement, as well?

Seemingly, we, as a society, need to have more sustained conversations about when police intervention becomes necessary and when it doesn't, both in and out of schools.