In response to the Newtown tragedy in December, the Obama administration proposed a package of reforms, including a proposal to provide $150 million for local jurisdictions to hire new school resource officers (SROs) or counselors and $4 billion for the Community Oriented Police (COPS) program, which can also be used to hire law enforcement in schools. Members of Congress will be considering these proposals in the appropriations process and have introduced a number of others that would authorize more law enforcement officers in schools.
Many concerns have been raised about these proposals. It is crucial that we get loud immediately — and here's why.
First, the current system of law enforcement in schools doesn't work and needs an overhaul. Research since the federal crime bill of 1994 was put into place shows a substantial increase in the presence of law enforcement in schools, due in large part to greater federal funding and a rise in the prevalence of zero-tolerance policies in schools. These factors have led to substantial increases in suspensions, expulsions, arrests and referrals to the juvenile and criminal justice systems. For kids in many states, they can literally go from the school playground to the adult criminal justice system.
"This program has grown dramatically without the benefit of scientific evaluation," conclude University of Maryland researchers Denise Gottfredson and Chongmin Na in a 2011 study, "Police Officers in Schools." According to these researchers, "No rigorous study to date has demonstrated that placing police in schools promotes school safety."
Additionally, experts say there is no agreed-upon definition of an SRO. As a result, lacking a defined role, many of them are acting beyond the scope of security concerns by enforcing school discipline codes and otherwise criminalizing normal youth behavior.
Second, the young people most affected by these policies are being ignored. Youths involved with the national Dignity in Schools campaign have launched a "You Can't Build Peace With a Piece" campaign, putting forward effective school safety solutions that include ending zero-tolerance policies; rejecting efforts to expand police and military in schools; and funding programs that work, such as Positive Behavioral Supports in schools, peace building and restorative justice programs.
Third, funding for more SROs and the COPS program will directly compete with federal juvenile justice funding, which is designed to prevent youth violence and delinquency and protect children who do enter the justice system.
Funding for SROs and the COPS program is in the same appropriations bill as juvenile justice funding. Huge increases in these programs would squeeze juvenile justice funding, which has low support among appropriators compared with more popular programs (and even unpopular ones such as the federal Bureau of Prisons). Federal juvenile justice funding has already taken huge hits in the last decade, declining 83 percent from 1999 to 2010, and the Budget Control Act's appropriations caps and the implementation of sequestration will exacerbate these cuts.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, these proposals threaten the success of juvenile justice reforms in states and localities.
In Maryland, juvenile justice reform bills heard by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee would limit the detention and incarceration of youths in the juvenile and criminal justice systems and make use of more cost-effective and research-proven alternatives. These proposals have bipartisan backing and are likely to garner significant support this General Assembly session.
However, if congressional and administration proposals to place more law enforcement in schools move forward, we should expect to see large increases in referrals from schools to the juvenile and criminal justice systems. An influx of kids into the justice system would undermine progress in juvenile justice, including the proposals under consideration by Maryland lawmakers.
It will take all of us working together to ensure policymakers understand the unintended consequences of implementing proposals to place more law enforcement in schools.
Liz Ryan is the president and CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national organization dedicated to ending the practice of trying, sentencing and incarcerating youths under 18 in the adult criminal justice system. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.