DeMarcus Jenkins has seen the presence of law enforcement in schools from different angles — as a student, high school teacher and education researcher.
As districts around the country reexamine their relationships with school police, Jenkins is studying how cutting ties with law enforcement can lead to more equitable approaches to ensure students are safe in school.
Having law enforcement on campus doesn’t guarantee that because school policing has unintended consequences for some children. A 2021 Center for Public Integrity investigation found that students with disabilities, Black children and, in some states, Latino and Native American children are disproportionately referred to law enforcement for behavior such as refusing to leave class or having shoving matches with classmates. Referrals can lead to arrests, criminal charges or citations that require students to appear in court.
“A world without police, or a world where schools are free from law enforcement interference, is a notion or an idea that scares people,” said Jenkins, an assistant professor at the Penn State University College of Education. But “the idea … is not one that says, we just need to remove law enforcement from schools, and that’s it, right? It’s not just [about] dismantling something. It is also about rebuilding.”
Without officers on campus, some districts hired more counselors and social workers to help students. Others turned to restorative justice programs as a way for kids to resolve conflicts with each other.
After the Oakland, California, school system voted to disband its police department, the district kept its corps of unarmed security officers but had them focus less on enforcing rules and more time on fostering relationships with students.
In Minneapolis, the school district worked with city government to hire community members trained in de-escalation techniques to bolster security. Known as “violence interrupters,” the employees patrolled neighborhoods surrounding high schools at the end of the day to intervene in potential conflicts.
But change isn’t always easy. In the wake of mass school shootings and perceived spikes in on-campus crime, some districts that terminated contracts with police turned back to law enforcement.
Among those places is Denver, where the school board suspended its 2020 policy removing school police from campus after a student shot and injured two deans at East High School in March. A safety plan required the student to be searched before entering the school each day. Two unarmed district security officers were in the building when the shooting happened.
The Center for Public Integrity spoke with Jenkins recently about the challenging process of making schools safe for all students.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What drives public conversations around law enforcement in schools?
The conversation around [school resource officers] is perpetual, and then it has these moments where it erupts, related to what’s happening in schools as well as political conversations around gun violence. Mass school shootings alarm parents and families and people who are interested in schools to revisit the questions around, “How are we preventing school shootings from happening? How are we making sure that folks in schools are safe?”
There is this notion that more police officers, surveillance, carceral approaches and tools will ensure safety. That’s not just in schools but even in neighborhoods and communities.
Q. How difficult is it to get across the message that there are other tools that school districts can deploy to address shootings and other violence?
When you think about mass school shootings, at least in the past few years, we’ve seen that the presence of law enforcement in schools has not worked to prevent shootings.
If our concern or our focus is preventing young people from being shot when they are in their learning environment, that allows us an opportunity to ask different questions like, “What is it that people may need that they are currently not getting, that would allow or that could serve as better prevention?”
Districts have done different things around social and emotional health support. They’ve done different things around mutual aid and other ways to support their communities and families that are connected to schools. And other places have done some work with restorative justice, and I think those are opportunities for us to say what we have tried over the past 60 or so years in placing resource officers in schools has not proven a hundred percent effective.
Q. In the aftermath of school shootings, how do people argue against the presence of law enforcement in schools?
When community members, parents and educators are arguing for the removal of school resource officers, they have an orientation that realizes that school police or law enforcement do not make all kids feel safe.
There are kids who come from particular backgrounds, primarily Black and Latinx youth, LGBTQ youth and youth who have disabilities. Research has suggested and shown that those populations do not always feel safe with the presence of SROs. There’s also an abundance of research that documents how the presence of SROs in schools increases and exacerbates the school-to-prison pipeline, where youth who come from marginalized backgrounds are funneled out of schools into criminal justice systems.
Q. Did you have school resource officers in your schools while growing up?
My engagement with police in schools happened, not only as a child or youth navigating schools but also as an adult working to educate my students. I went to public schools all my life, and we had school resource offers in the schools that I attended. I also was a high school teacher for a number of years, and I worked in schools where there was law enforcement present.
When [students] express frustrations about their interactions with law enforcement in the morning or after school, and in other parts of their day, that would completely shift how they approach school and how they interact in the classroom. And a lot of that also complicates, for me, how I approach my work.
There is a need to really center the voices and the perspective of the people who are deeply engaged in the school and learning processes and center their visions and their realities for how they imagine schools to function and to run.
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