As student activists lead an anti-gun violence movement throughout the United States, a small but discernible voice among the youths is calling for removing police officers from campuses. This tense moment in America’s political climate has inspired some student activists to make a radically progressive demand, calling for strengthening mental health programs in schools, among other views, instead of flooding school premises with potentially aggressive police officers.
One of those young people, Kaila Scaffey of Philadelphia’s Central High School, told Splinter News that the gun legislation movement is also about “a call for divestment in police officers and an investment in counselors and mental health services.”
Scaffey said of the officers—who are also known as school resource officers, or SROs—”The ultimate goal is to have officers removed from schools completely. But if they’re going to be there, we want them to be doing their job, which is to protect students, not committing acts of violence against them.”
The role of SROs on school premises came under question after the fatal shooting in Parkland left 17 people dead on Valentine’s Day. The school’s SRO, Deputy Scot Peterson, came under heavy criticism from both Sheriff Scott Israel as well as President Donald Trump for not entering the school after learning that shots were fired. Soon after Trump called Peterson a “coward,” the disgraced SRO stepped down from his position—while continuing to defend his actions—but the debate on whether or not an SRO could have stopped the massacre remained heated.
As Splinter News reported, the Florida House Appropriations Committee went ahead and signed a bill that involved, among other things, guaranteeing that every school in the state would have an SRO. These officers are occasionally armed and have the power to make arrests.
While the theory that states should appoint SROs to guard vulnerable students sounds proactive and even somewhat benevolent, the playing field is actually barely even. Data has shown that regular cops frequently target people of color, and SROs are also frequently accused of physically assaulting and unnecessarily curbing students of color across the country. In 2016, a disturbing video emerged showing an SRO thrashing a black senior at Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia after the student said he wanted to use the bathroom. The incident led to the relocation of the officer to a “non-school site,” according to Philly magazine.
SROs can come across as threatening to students of color, according to the United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. A 2014 study noted that while only 18 percent of black children represented preschool enrollment, “48 percent of preschool children [who] received more than one out-of-school suspension” were black. Skewed penalties like that, in addition to a documented trend of other punitive measures taken by SROs, can leave marginalized students wondering about their safety on campus. Ultimately, such a system contributes to America’s so-called school-to-prison pipeline, as a Teen Vogue report demonstrates.
Kaila Scaffey’s demand may make segments of American society who are reluctant to evaluate the role of police forces uncomfortable, but it’s a call to action that could eventually address two pressing needs across American schools. First, it could shed much-needed light on better mental health initiatives in schools so that students know there are actual people and programs that can help them with their problems. Second, and perhaps most crucially, a focus on de-weaponizing campuses may harmonize and equalize the education system for students of color, who have been historically on the receiving end of inequality under the country’s justice system.