In a decade of increasingly common mass school shootings, including active-duty police in schools has gained ground as a way to improve both actual and perceived campus safety. But continuing nationwide protests over police violence and racial disparities have highlighted questions of whether students of color actually feel safer for having officers around.
In the Los Angeles Unified school district, which is in the middle of a fight over whether to cut the budget for school resource officers, a new analysis by University of California, Los Angeles, researchers suggests disruptive incidents in the district overall are increasingly related to mental health needs, and that Black students in the district are significantly more likely to think school police escalate problems on campus than to think the officers made them safer at school.
Elianny Edwards, a doctoral researcher for the Black Male Institute UCLA, tracked disruptive episodes recorded in the district's annual Incident System Tracking Accountability Report, or ISTAR, which rose from 21,550 in 2011-12 to 45,560 in 2018-19, a 110 percent increase. The system includes 56 different types of incidents, concerning everything from a student falling down stairs to getting in a fight in class, but Edwards found mental health-related issues rose more than 900 percent during that time, compared to a 76 percent increase in criminal incidents.
Suicidal behavior alone made up a quarter of incidents at high schools, more than a third of incidents at middle schools, and 15 percent of elementary school incidents. This can be a dangerous trend, as separate research has found 1 in 5 teenagers shot by police since 2014 had histories of mental health problems, most commonly depression and bipolar disorders.
"Part of what the research seems to be suggesting to us is that police officers may be responding to roles that are outside of the purview of their expertise," Edwards said. "So it may well be that police officers are sending students to mental health counseling, but is it necessary for that referral to come from a police officer versus a teacher, a school aide, or an administrator? I don't necessarily think that that would require police intervention."
Moreover, using data from a 2018 survey of mostly Black students and other students of color in Los Angeles, the researchers found that 60 percent or more of Black students in the district did not believe that school police were trustworthy or cared about them. Forty-five percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that police made them safer on campus; 73 percent found police overly agressive and 67 percent said they tended to escalate situations rather than calming them down.
That is in line with separate studies which have found that students have not reported feeling safer in schools with resource officers than in those without, but that students in schools with SROs may be more likely to be arrested for behaviors which do not lead to arrests in schools without police on campus.
"I feel like it's really important to listen to black students and invest in the things that'll help make them feel safe at school," Edwards said. "And one of the things that they're saying is making them feel unsafe in school is school police."
The researchers argued that the district should consider dedicating more money for school safety interventions to lowering the district's 500-1 school counselor ratio to 250-1, and to providing more general trauma-informed-care training for staff.