“Our students need help. They don’t deserve punishment.”
Protesters have been calling for the defunding of police in recent weeks, but there’s another aspect of over-policing that is especially important to students: the placement of officers in schools.
Activists in the Phoenix area are among many across the country pushing for schools to remove school resource officers (SROs). Specifically, they are asking the Phoenix Union High School District to end its partnership with the city’s police to supply them with SROs.
The district governing board’s President Stephanie Parra said the group was poised to vote on the contract in a June 4 meeting, but members decided to postpone until mid-July to give them time to listen to the community and reassess the situation.
Abia Khan, a former student who started a petition calling for the district to end the partnership, told The Copper Courier she feels the board is postponing in order to wait out the momentum and calls for change.
“Right now it just feels like they’re stalling,” Khan said.
The push to remove SROs from schools isn’t new. Local advocacy groups like Poder in Action and March For Our Lives have been calling for it for years. But it’s receiving renewed efforts during nationwide protests against racial injustice.
The protests, sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May, have also led to calls for cities to defund police and put more money into civilian oversight and community programs.
By strengthening resources for programs like drug rehabilitation, mental health support, and more, activists argue, the need for police would lessen if not be erased.
Law enforcement also has a long history of discriminatorily arresting and locking up people of color. In Arizona, 15% of the prison population is Black, while only 5% of the state’s population is.
Students have said they feel the same discrimination in schools, with children of color being targeted more often than their white peers. Activists also point out how undocumented students often feel intimidated by law enforcement presence on campus, despite the students having the right to be there.
Khan, who graduated from North High School in Phoenix this spring and will be attending Harvard University in the fall, said while she hasn’t experienced or witnessed SRO discrimination in her school, she knows students feel very on edge around them.
“School is a second home for a lot of our students,” Khan said. “They have the right to feel safe on their campuses, and that feeling just can’t be achieved with police presence.”
Money Better Used Elsewhere?
Khan also said she believes the money used to pay them would be much better off funding social workers and counselors for schools. Her school has one social worker and eight counselors to manage a student population of more than 2,600 students.
“Our students need help. They don’t serve punishment,” Khan said. “Usually kids, they usually act out because they’re traumatized, they’re dealing with something … and they just need someone to talk to.”
The Arizona education system as a whole struggles with providing enough mental health support to students. For every 905 students in Arizona, there is only one counselor, giving the state the worst ratio in the country. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 to 1.
Superintendent Kathy Hoffman has expressed agreement with this stance, saying schools should focus on hiring counselors and social workers rather than beefing up law enforcement presence.
And last year when the state gave schools the choice to use grant money to hire their choice of these roles, educators expressed a preference for mental health professionals over officers. In fact, counselors and social workers made up nearly 75% of the total requests.
The Phoenix Union currently employs nine SROs, four through these grants.
While some parents and students have expressed safety concerns over removing SROs from campus, it’s unclear if their presence actually reduces violence. Schools like Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, have experienced mass shootings despite an SRO being present.
But what is known is that students have received criminal charges for simply carrying out pranks or violating other school rules. An American Civil Liberties Union report found that children as young as five have been charged with “crimes” for everyday misbehavior: throwing a paper airplane, kicking a trash can, and wearing sagging pants.
“I truly believe that if we get to the root of the problem,” Khan said, “we won’t need that extra precaution [of SROs].”