Many Black and Latine students across the country share the mental health consequences of exposure to police violence at a young age. Shockingly, this exposure often occurs at school, at the hands of armed School Resource Officers, or “SROs.”
An SRO’s presence implies that each and every student is a criminal, just waiting to realize their true nature. Compounding that implication, SROs’ threat of violence requires students to perform academically under the pressure of such criminalization. Armed officers on any high school campus place an emotional burden on students. They impact both their academic performance and wellbeing.
Driving to campus, I remember desperately hoping that my school’s armed officer would not be present upon my arrival. The intense fear of coming to school and being a walking target for violence haunted my every moment in class.
“Keep your head down.” “Do not draw attention to yourself.” “Yes ma’am.” “No ma’am.” My childhood and adolescence were stolen by formalities that taught me to believe that I could only do wrong.
When transitioning from childhood to adolescence, schools begin to treat students’ difficulties apathetically, lacking the support given at the early elementary school levels. An armed school resource officer plays an essential role in this shift. Discipline is now out of the hands of teachers and in the hand of the SRO. SROs view misbehavior as an excuse for an attention-seeking student to disrupt class – rather than as a possible marker for something neurological or psychological. Any misstep merits punishment, and in certain cases, arrest.
When a student, on- or off-campus, commits a disciplinary offense, the district’s School Resource Officer(s) may detain the student as long as they have “probable cause”.
Unsurprisingly, this power is often abused when the student is a person of color or is disabled. SROs may remove a student from campus, or even from their home. They also hold the power to arrest a student, as a police officer would. School resource officers decide whether to send a detained student to the superintendent of their district, the principal’s office, or the police department to await their punishment.
If sent to jail, the student may spend the rest of their life within the judicial system–all as a result of their arrest by the SRO. Once a student goes to jail once, they experience a high chance of becoming “entrenched in the school to prison-pipeline”. Students of color often find themselves victims in this concrete cycle of unhelpful discipline, losing access to vital resources, falling behind in school, and meeting unfair punishment all over again. If a student is punished for one small mistake while in school, they may be forced into a cycle of incarceration.
Aside from the actual experience of police violence at a young age, this experience often leads to hypervigilance through adolescence and into adulthood. Hypervigilance involves increased anxiety even when no threat is around. There is a feeling of constant danger, whether an officer is present or not. As detrimental as it is, hypervigilance makes sense in this situation. This fear of being racially profiled by a symbol of a violent institution of power, causes students to carry an immense emotional burden which can lead to many psychological consequences.
Putting handcuffs on a minor and sending them to jail seems immoral, right? But this scenario is more than legal, and more common than it should be.
The 4th and 14th amendment both protect a minor’s right from arrest without probable cause and jail without due process. Neither protects students within US public schools – even if they are off-campus. However, the youth in America’s schools are people before they are students. Thus, the arrest of students by the Student Resource Officer may qualify as a “potential violation of constitutional rights”.
SRO’s misuse their immense power over students to violently act on their prejudices. Resource officers arrest students of color more often, and more violently, for smaller offenses. In dealing with white students, however, SROs give a simple slap on the wrist.
This pattern, of course, is not surprising considering the history of policing as an institution (slave patrol).
Knowing that SROs see students as possible offenders, their escalation of small offenses is unsurprising. In fact, 77% of surveyed officers in Delaware admitted to arresting students simply to “calm them down.”
This sounds like a misguided technique. However, it may be less misguided and more not-guided-at-all. Around a quarter of school-resource officers surveyed by Education Weekly reported having no previous experience working with youth before being stationed on public school campuses. And most of them lack the years of experience and education that counselors, teachers, and on-campus medical staff have with working with students. Many of these officers were not even stationed in the community prior to working in these districts.
This exemplifies a major flaw that is present with SROs and their programs nationally. They are simply not qualified to deal with mental health crises on campus. And as the above study shows, they often make crises worse.
As soon as a student walks onto a policed campus, they open themselves to severe punishment, rather than restorative techniques. This instills fear and trauma in students of color. Their schools are now places of hostility rather than places of safety.
As students recognize schools as hostile environments, their mental health begins to worsen. They no longer associate their playgrounds, classrooms, and cafeterias as places where they can be children, but as places where they are preemptively tried as adults. This causes overall mental and emotional health to decrease in students of color, especially in those already struggling with mental health prior to sharing a campus with an SRO.
This, as we have already discussed, will almost guarantee students a future of repeated arrests and a history with the judicial system within their communities. Any small infraction may merit a week of detentions, in- or out of school suspensions, or expulsion. This will leave the student without an adequate support system and will increase the likelihood of them committing a second misdemeanor Once their name is in the system, it will leave an irreversible scar on their record.
As previously discussed, very few school resource officers are adequately trained to exist in and navigate the same environment as students. Let’s not forget that in Delaware over 77% of surveyed SROs arrest students just to calm them down. Much like the officers patrolling communities of color, SROs are simply ill-equipped to de-escalate situations, and often assume the worst intent. These truths make SRO presence especially threatening to students who struggle with mental health.
This nationally consistent behavior by SROs, paired with the lack of mental health professionals on campus, leaves struggling students struggling without help, and vulnerable to vilification by authority figures.
Authorities confuse panic attacks for violent outbursts, and manic episodes as safety threats to other students. And unfortunately, even training does not reduce the criminalization of students dealing with mental health. This misinterpretation of students’ emotional struggles remains consistent between trained and untrained SROs. If, for some miraculous reason, SROs are supposedly trained adequately their performance does not result in outlier data. Student outcomes remain similar to those from resource officers who have had inadequate training.
When it comes to severity of punishment, students of color are more likely to find themselves with longer suspensions than their white peers. Some suspensions last up to a year, which can devastate a child’s development and educational outlook. Not to mention, students suspended from school even for less than a year are still more likely to repeat an entire year or drop out entirely. Students who are severely punished for small infractions suffer academically. It is as simple as that.
But the looming threat of severe punishment is not the only force keeping students of color from performing at their best. The pressure to perform, while simultaneously dealing with the emotional burden of being criminalized, negatively impacts POC students’ ability to succeed in an academic setting.
Stereotype threat can significantly harm the performance of Black and brown youth. Stereotype threat is a “socially premised psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one’s group applies”.
It is well known by school psychologists that students who feel they belong in a classroom perform better. Unfortunately, a SRO presence on campus makes students of color feel the opposite. They don’t feel welcomed nor safe on campus thus they do not perform as well as their white classmates. This widens the education gap between white students and students of color. It also creates a cycle of alienation for the students of color in the present and future.
As a student of color on my high school’s campus, I experienced the firsthand dangers of having an armed officer present in a learning environment. I, along with my peers, constantly felt like I was guilty until proven innocent. I felt that my school wanted to find every possible reason to punish us, with the threat of the SRO.
SROs were a source of our anxiety on campus, and watching their patrol car drive into the parking lot in the morning made us reluctant to get out of ours. Seeing friends arrested for having panic attacks or suicidal thoughts, made us scared to ask for help when we needed it. It made us feel like we were unwanted. Like we were not a priority to the administration, unlike our white classmates.
Two years after I graduated from my public school, I have organized with current students and my fellow alumni to remove school resource officers from our district.
After almost one full year of activism, I am proud to announce that we successfully convinced our city council to pass a bill. The armed SRO program will be removed from our campus by June 22, 2022. Our neighboring city passed a similar bill just two months prior to ours.
Both of these achievements would not have been possible without the mobilization of BIPOC voices and the power of consistent allyship. It is for this reason that I want to speak to others whose experiences make them passionate about this issue.
You can take matters into your own hands. Pressure local politicians. Attend every city council meeting. Be loud. Take up space.
Students of color have been told to be small in academic spaces for too long. We achieved something wonderful, and I encourage other comrades of color to organize to do the same. Your mental health will benefit.