“Though society is scared and grieving, we cannot allow the knee jerk reaction to the devastating mass shooting in Uvalde to ignore the systemic, policy, and evidence-based realities and root causes of gun violence.”

Edwin J. Torres/Mayoral Photo Office

School safety officers at the Christopher Columbus Campus during an event in 2016.

In response to the horrific and tragic mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, school districts in “progressive” and “liberal” New York suburbs, including my own son’s school district, recently sent out communication verbalizing appreciation for the local police department and “assuring” community members that police would have an increased presence during the school day and at school events to “increase safety and security.” As a mental health clinician and mother of Black children, I ask, increase the “safety and security” for whom?

There is no conclusive evidence that police presence in schools helps to reduce behavioral incidents or mass shootings, nor that it improves general safety or the mental health and educational outcomes of attending students.

Instead, research demonstrates that police presence in schools significantly disrupts and causes harm to the learning environment. The presence of law enforcement within schools can lead to increased rates of arrest for students over minor offenses, and higher rates of exclusionary school discipline.

The criminalization of youth is particularly troublesome for youth of color and those with disabilities, especially as it further establishes a school-to-prison pipeline. Research also shows that Black boys are three times as likely to be arrested at school as their white male peers. Similarly, Black and Brown girls are six times more likely to be suspended than their white female peers. According to federal data in the 2015-16 school year, Black students as a whole made up only 15 percent of the school population nationally but accounted for 31 percent of arrests.

While the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) has been under attack in recent years, that is not the only racial disparity that schools are challenged with facing. The Civil Rights Data Collection found that during the 2015-2016 academic year, more than 96,000 public schools reported that Black, Hispanic male and American Indian students faced harsher discipline than their white student counterparts.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has also found that more than 70 percent of students arrested or handed over to law enforcement officials from their educators are youth of color. Similar disparities exist for students with disabilities, who comprise 12 percent of the student population but are arrested at a rate of 2.9 to 10 times that of students without disabilities, depending on the state where they attend school.

In 2018, in response to the Parkland Shooting, police officers were placed at every elementary, middle, and high school in Florida. This response did not make students safer. Rather, according to research conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, the Florida Social Justice in Schools Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the League of Women Voters of Florida and Equality Florida, it led to the following:

  • The percentage of youth arrests occurring at school hit a five-year high of 20 percent.
  • The number of students expelled from school increased by 43 percent.
  • For the first time ever, there were more police officers working in Florida schools (3,650) then there were nurses (2,286), school social workers (1,414), and psychologists (1,452).
  • Locals reported more than four times as many incidents where physical restraints were used on students.
  • During a single school year (2018-19) the number of youth arrests at school increased by 8 percent, even though communities around the schools saw a 12 percent decline in the number of youth arrested.
  • Police officers arrested elementary-aged children 345 times, including the arrest of a 5-year-old and five arrests of 6-year-olds in that same year.

In addition, the presence of police in school has negative emotional and mental health consequences for students. The mere presence of police in school settings causes our most vulnerable students to feel traumatized and unsafe. When we police academic environments, students become less connected to learning, less trusting of adults, and are less likely to bond with teachers, ancillary staff, and peers in the student community.

The result? Subpar academic achievement, increased dropout rates and future incarcerations, decreased job opportunities, earning capacity and economic productivity as adults, and traumatic separation from family and community support. My concern is that police presence in schools will increase fear, stigma, shame, and mistrust amongst students, and lead them to failure due to being in a climate that is not inclusive>

ALL students deserve and need emotional safety, so they can thrive socially, emotionally, and academically. Environments where youth reported feeling psychologically safe encouraged classroom participation, engagement, and positive development. Qualities of these environments include relaxation, absence of fear and stress, greater respect for each individual student, and the ability to express themselves.

Though society is scared and grieving, we cannot allow the knee jerk reaction to the devastating mass shooting in Uvalde to ignore the systemic, policy, and evidence-based realities and root causes of gun violence. Everyone must think critically and acknowledge that schools need to employ sound solutions and preventative measures that effectively, equitably, and humanely meet the physical, emotional, and mental health safety needs of America’s students, especially as we end a school year where students are reporting increased levels of depression, anxiety, stress, distress and substance use (particularly today’s Black and Hispanic youth).

It is time to stop the perpetuation of an unethical and unjust school-to-prison pipeline once and for all. It is far more effective to focus energy on providing our nation’s children with strong and affirming school environments, which provide the necessary resources to support their emotional, mental, and scholastic development, promote educational objectives, and reduce violence—rather than increase police presence in schools.

Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker and partner and chief clinical officer at The Dorm, a young adult mental health treatment community based in NYC & DC. She received her master’s degree and a doctoral degree in social work from Wurzweiler School of Social Work and completed psychoanalytic training at The Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in New York City.

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