Justice Department's School Safety Plan Puts Black, Brown Students In Danger, Critics Say

A new plan announced by Jeff Sessions would send money to areas that want to add school officers.

Federal funds will flow to local jurisdictions that want to put more cops in schools under a new plan announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday.

As part of a plan announced in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month, the Justice Department will prioritize grant money to local law enforcement agencies that want to add school resource officers. The Justice Department included the news in a package highlighting recent initiatives aimed at preventing school shootings.

“No child should have to fear going to school or walking the streets of their neighborhood,” Sessions said in a statement. “We are increasing the number of school resource officers, improving background checks and more aggressively prosecuting those who illegally attempt to purchase a firearm, and reviewing and enhancing the way our law enforcement agencies respond to tips from the public.”

The funds would come out of existing grants issued by the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office. But critics say that there’s scant evidence the actions will actually make schools safer, and civil rights leaders fear that additional school resource officers will actually make schools less safe for students of color.

“The decision to funnel more money into the militarization of our schools and policing of young people is really problematic,” Kaitlin Banner, deputy project director at the liberal nonprofit Advancement Project, told HuffPost. When states or the federal government encourage school districts to increase the presence of police in the schools, the officers end up mostly in schools that serve children of color, who bear the brunt of the tougher security policies, she said.

“We’re similarly concerned about bringing more guns and weapons into the school environment,” Banner said.

“The decision to funnel more money into the militarization of our schools and policing of young people is really problematic.”

- Kaitlin Banner, Advancement Project

There is no evidence that school cops ― also called school resource officers ― deter school shootings. In 2013, the Congressional Research Service studied the issue as policymakers pressed for more school officers after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut. The research found that, while school cops can bring a few tangible benefits to schools, they could also have a devastating effect on the lives of vulnerable children by increasing the numbers of school arrests. Overall, the report lamented the lack of rigorous research on how officers affected schools as their hiring drained funding.

Schools with security officers are more likely to see facilities regularly patrolled and have emergency plans in place. But these schools are also more likely to refer students to local law enforcement, even for minor misbehaviors such as vandalism. This means that adolescent transgressions that would have previously been met with a detention or suspension could suddenly involve court appearances and a criminal record.

In some cases, too, students have been subject to police brutality. Previous HuffPost reporting found that school police officers used Tasers on children at least 87 times from 2011 to 2016.

“Sessions’ plan is unacceptable and will harm our children ― especially children of color,” Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, said in a statement. “This administration has shown an open hostility to children’s civil rights and this plan takes that to the next level.

“Instead of meaningful solutions that would keep children safe,” said Gupta, former head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, “like increasing safety restrictions and limitations on gun purchases and providing more school counselors, this plan will overpolice children and militarize schools. It must be scrapped.”

When it comes to arming teachers, groups ranging from school cops to teachers unions vehemently reject the idea. Civil rights leaders also worry about what arming teachers will mean for students of color, in addition to their concerns about placing more officers in schools.

“Once again, we are reminded that Attorney General Sessions is a very real danger to children, especially black children, Latino children, Muslim children, immigrant children and children with disabilities,” said Liz King, a senior policy analyst and director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

As part of the the plan announced Monday, the Justice Department will separately prioritize “lie-and-try” cases, in which would-be gun purchasers lie on a federal form they fill out as part of the background check. In the past, the Justice Department hasn’t prioritized cases in which a person unsuccessfully sought to purchase a weapon.

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