Fourteen-year old Kaleb Winston was wearing a "graffiti-patterned backpack" when the Salt Lake City police's gang unit rounded him and more than a dozen other students up one December school day in 2010. The bi-racial freshman, who at the time held down jobs in the school cafeteria and as a basketball referee, was questioned and then photographed holding a sign reading: "My name is Kaleb Winston and I am a gang tagger." Found guilty of nothing, the students' personal information was nonetheless added to a "gang database."
The National Rifle Association's call to place armed police officers in schools nationwide in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre has been derided as "revolting, tone-deaf" (Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy) and even a "completely dumbass idea" (Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter). It is all of those things. But what most reports neglect to mention is the fact that armed police are already present in many schools.
"I agree that the NRA's suggestion is absurd" says Aaron Kupchik, a University of Delaware sociologist whose 2010 book Homeroom Security: School Discipline in an Age of Fear examines the now-commonplace presence of armed police in schools nationwide. "The public is missing the point that we've already made schools more into police zones over the past 20 years."
More than a third of American sheriffs' departments and nearly half of all police departments have officers assigned to local schools, according to Department of Justice statistics from early last decade. Students today are arrested in school for offenses that include talking back to a police officer, doodling on a desk with an erasable marker, farting, and being an eight-year old throwing a temper tantrum. In other words: criminalizing childhood misbehavior.
In 2011, Southeastern Washington high school students were told to leave class so that a dog could smell their backpacks to see if they had drugs. This far-from-atypical search did not, according to the ACLU, uncover any dangerous drug dealers, nor was it based on any reasonable suspicion that students were using drugs: Of two students singled out for a "more invasive search and questioning," one had, apparently, a marijuana pipe; the other was drug-free. No other drugs were found. And even if they had been…Eviscerating fundamental civil liberties seems like a high price to pay in order to track down a pot-smoking teenager.
New York City is the site of one of the most high-profile battles for student civil liberties. A few years ago, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of five middle and high school students who allege they were physically assaulted and wrongfully arrested by the NYPD, which had taken charge of public school security at the school in 1998. With 5,000 officers, the NYPD’s “School Safety Division” is larger than all but three other cities' entire police forces—nearly as large as Philadelphia's, and larger than Houston's. That’s a lot of cops to keep high-schoolers in line.
Few students, according to the NYCLU, are arrested for serious felonies. And importantly, the mad gunmen the NRA seeks to deter are rarities: Of all school-age children murdered in the United States, according to a 2001 study in American Psychologist, less than one percent actually take place at a school.
"We're definitely opposed to having armed guards in schools," says NYCLU senior staff attorney Alexis Karteron. School police by and large "aren't there to deal with this extraordinary situation of an armed gunman coming in, so what they end up dealing with is minor incidents that really should be treated as disciplinary matters. And they end up being converted into criminal matters."
In New York, 95 percent of the 882 arrests made by the NYPD School Safety Division in 2012 were of black or Latino students. Meanwhile, sixty-three percent of summonses were for "disorderly conduct," a catchall charge in both the street and classroom.And a 2009 study found that the rate of students arrested for disorderly conduct was 100-percent higher at schools with police on-campus than at schools where the cops have to be called in to make an arrest—suggesting that officers criminalize misbehavior that could likely be better resolved without handcuffs.
Kupchik, who studied both urban and suburban schools, found that the criminalization of students impacts white, well-to-do students too. One suburban principal he studied established a rule that mandated arrests for any students caught fighting.
"They're not as good at the softer side of things," says Kupchik. He compliments most police officers he met during his study for being well-intentioned and caring people but laments that administrators and teachers now outsource complicated disciplinary matters to people who are neither counselors nor educators and lack the necessary training. "They don't know what to do with a crying 15 year old."
"Cops are really trained in street tactics that aren't entirely appropriate in schools," adds the NYCLU's Karteron.
The criminalization of student conduct was part of a broader push for Zero Tolerance policies that took off after heightened concern over youth violence in the mid-1980s and intensified in the wake of the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School.
School police help enforce a regime that deals out suspensions for transgressions ranging from signing a gospel song with friends at lunch, making out with a love interest, or blowing spit balls. Schools now also require drug tests for an ever-expanding set of extracurricular activities that now includes middle-school sports and even chess club, Future Farmers of America, and band (though a California judge in 2009 ruled drug testing for the latter set unconstitutional under state law).
Suspension rates have more than doubled since the 1980s, according to a Columbia Teachers College's Hechinger Report article. And Zero Tolerance mirrors the criminal justice system's racial disproportionality, with black youths three-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.
The very same liberal establishment outraged over the NRA's proposal has, with conservative support, made police officers commonplace in many schools over the past two decades. It was the Clinton Administration that initiated federal funding for school-police partnerships.
Having police oversee our youth is a sign of desperation: Schools, like the tattered social safety net, do not receive the needed funds from government to offer services that might prevent student misbehavior. The inverted priorities are clear: New York City, with its 5,000 campus police officers, has more cops than counselors (3,000) or social workers (1,500) in the city’s schools.
Schools pressed to teach to high-stakes tests spend money on cops yet cannot access sufficient state or federal dollars for social services or educators.
The excesses are breeding a new consensus against Zero Tolerance, and school districts including Baltimore, New Orleans, and Philadelphia have moved to more flexible disciplinary systems. The skyrocketing suspensions and expulsions, alongside research showing that such rigid policies feed people into the justice system without decreasing violence, has changed minds—and infuriated parents. In December, Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) convened the first congressional hearings on the "school to prison pipeline."
Yet arming school police continues to offer a simplistic appeal. Last year, the Philadelphia Inquirer dedicated 4,500 words to a glowing review of Houston, Texas's armed school cops with the Orwellian title "Armed with Guns and Understanding." It was the capstone to a series, which ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize, on widespread violence in Philly schools. It implied that armed cops might be a solution for Philadelphia.
The article disturbed Deborah Fowler of the public-interest law center Texas Appleseed, who afterward submitted an op-ed warning Philadelphia readers of "the criminalization of minor misbehavior in the state's schools." Treating troublemakers like lawbreakers can have serious consequences for affected children, removing them from the classroom and sending them down the too-well-trodden pathway to prison.
Falsely accused "gang tagger" Kaleb Winston's grades have suffered, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. He has stopped drawing, fears police, and is troubled by his racial identity. His father and the ACLU of Utah have filed suit on his behalf.
The conversion of underfunded and segregated schools into police states has failed, and so policymakers and the public should look beyond Newtown when thinking about how to improve school safety. The NRA has likely done students like Winston an accidental favor in making the call for blanketing American schools with armed police seem like the totally insane idea it is.
Follow the author on Twitter at @DanielDenvir