In a time when we need to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline, I'm concerned to hear that four of the country's largest school districts have more police or security officers than counselors - a troubling ratio that speaks to a police-state mentality that apparently continues to thrive in America.
In New York City, the country's largest school district, there are six security officers for every 1,000 students, but only three counselors. In Houston, there are 1.16 officers and only .78 counselors for every 100 students. Chicago and Miami also fall into these ranges, according to new data cited widely in media reports late last month.
With these numbers it mind, we're not surprised that efforts to thwart the school to prison pipeline are failing - after all, we are surrounding students with an environment that sets them up for prisons. Right from the start, we are treating them more like prisoners and less like students. Ensuring that they are more likely to see an officer than a counselor must make an impression on these students' minds and is likely increase any already-existing tensions.
How can students help but wonder: is their environment safe? Or is a culture of fear created?
This unacceptable ratio also means an increased likelihood that minor infractions will be dealt with in a more serious way - we hear of students being charged, arrested or expelled as consequences for minor actions. The data clearly indicates that when Student Resources Officers are present, students are five times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct, which can have a lasting effect on their lives. This is another example of how we may be setting up students to have negative encounters with law enforcement and the justice system at an earlier age, funnelling them into the prison pipeline rather than diverting them from it.
There are two easy solutions to help divert from the school-to-prison pipeline. One is to correct the ratio of officers to counseling staff, so that students are treated more like students, and have greater opportunity to seek guidance and to deal with underlying issues. Research clearly demonstrates how effective counseling is in reducing classroom disturbances, anxiety and risk of drop-out rates. It also leads to higher academic achievement and increased preparedness for the future.
In these larger school districts, the number of counselors is well under the recommended ratio by the American School Counselor Association of 250-one. None of the top 10 districts come close to meeting this number.
The other solution is to offer increased training for Security Resource Officers. It's well known that teenagers and students behave and make decisions differently than adults, and this needs to be more widely understood. Resource officers can also be trained to act more like mentors than disciplinarians, which can have a positive impact, such as at Furr High School in Houston. Before re-training officers, the school would suspend 30 students a day for minor infractions like dress code violations; this number has since dropped.
Whatever the solution is, it is clear that this situation needs to be rectified, placing a larger emphasis on preventive measures, counselling, and education, and less emphasis on strict security measures and punitive justice for minor infractions. Schools need to be safe places for education, not fostering a sense of fear, or further contributing to mass incarceration.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com