Should we defund school police? I'm a teacher and I'm torn about how to keep kids safe.
Good teachers believe in the power of reason and love. But can we really expect that reason and love will always protect our students? Of course not.
On Feb. 22, 1996, fifth-grade teacher Alfredo Perez was in the Figueroa Street Elementary School library when a bullet crashed through a window and struck him in the head. His ultimate survival was miraculous. The lasting trauma on him and the students who saw him fall and bleed on the floor is incalculable.
A few years later, one of those students was in my English class. I had no idea until almost the end of the school year that she’d witnessed her fifth-grade teacher being shot in the head by a stray bullet from the urban nightmare that surrounded the campus. Her disposition seemed not dissimilar from her peers – a reminder, I realized, of how many students had been traumatized by the violence around them, along with poverty, drug addiction and mass incarceration.
When students talk about gangs and gang violence, they almost always display wariness and outright hostility toward police. Some kids speak about them as if they are yet another gang, one without well marked territory a teenager could avoid and with the power of the government and the prison system behind it. As for school police, many students view them as a menace and not much of a real protection. The girl who’d seen Alfredo Perez was shot was quick to point out the inability of school police to protect kids from the most serious dangers in their lives.
Football teams and mutual respect
So I was not surprised last summer when the union to which I belong supported and then voted to defund the Los Angeles Unified School District police (a demand the school board ignored) or that the nearby Pomona School District has now resolved to replace police on their campuses with “proctors trained in de-escalation methods.”
Quite a few of my former students, including some who expressed those unfavorable views on police, now work in law enforcement. Not surprisingly, their views on police and policing have evolved, and they are no longer proponents of defunding. As one of them – Christopher Baker, a senior lead officer with the Los Angeles Police Department – said to me not long after the murder of George Floyd, fixing the system requires investment.
I responded that "defund" was the wrong word anyway. This should be about reallocating resources so that police officers with guns aren’t asked to do the work of social workers or other mental health professionals – or educators.
Chris asked me whether I would feel more or less safe without school police. I told him I wasn’t entirely sure and then mentioned something a school police officer had once told me – that the high schools with the fewest problems are the ones with a strong football program. Football players regulate other students and the coach regulates those players.
To me that suggests school safety, more than anything, flows from the school culture, and that a safe school starts with teachers in the classroom. Our goal should be to provide a classroom environment of mutual respect to go along with a meaningful and compelling education.
It's what the most effective teachers everywhere have always done. They have little interest in the heavy hand of punitive discipline, which is adversarial and unimaginative and turns young people – disproportionately of color – into “bad kids,” “behavior problems,” and, tragically, sometimes into dropouts at high risk of falling into the criminal justice system.
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The most effective educators believe in the good in every student and consider it our responsibility to deescalate conflict and potential violence among students. We believe in the profound power of reason and love. We break up fights (when we can’t prevent them) and if we’re able to resolve the dispute, will even avoid reporting an altercation in order to protect the combatants from potentially being criminalized for one lapse in judgment.
Teachers aren't equipped for all perils
But what if, as Chris asked me, a kid brings a lethal weapon to school or makes a phone call to invite mayhem onto the campus? It’s a fair question with a pretty obvious answer. And it raises an equally important question: Amidst a culture afflicted with violence (and I mean American culture, not just in the inner city), can we really expect that reason and love will always protect us?
Of course not.
I found that out firsthand one morning when armed men pounded on my classroom door. A student who had just arrived late to class out of breath said the men at the door had come on campus to kill him and asked me to please not open the door. This was before cell phones and before our classrooms had working phones. I was told later that police and EMTs were responding to a student having a seizure in another classroom. They scared those guys off and may well have saved all of us.
I’m glad those police showed up, whatever the reason, and I appreciate the risk they take every day. And I’m the first to concede that students and teachers do sometimes need armed protection. That said, which armed officers do we want on our campuses interacting with our students? City police who are agents of the criminal justice system? Or officers who answer to the school board?
Arguments for defunding school police are not without merit. Criminalizing student behavior that is almost always a symptom of mental and emotional distress is a shameful cruelty no educator ought to support. Defunding school police departments means more funding for the very interventions that can better serve students and make schools safer in the long run.
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Still, much as I believe in the role educators play in student safety, it would be more than foolish to believe we are equipped for any and all potential perils that could find their way onto our campuses. I will be closely following the Pomona School District’s experiment with some skepticism and a lot of hope. I appreciate the leap – and the risk – that they are taking and hope it all works out for their students.
Larry Strauss (@LarryStrauss) is a high school English teacher and retired basketball coach in South Los Angeles. A member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, he is the author of more than a dozen books, most recently "Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher" and, on audio, "Now's the Time" (narrated by Kim Fields).