Students won’t be the only ones going back to school this fall. When the bell rings, dozens of police officers also will enter school buildings as student resource officers (SROs). On paper, they’re employees of the local police department, responsible for maintaining safety and teaching law-related topics, but activists have long alleged their presence in schools criminalizes normal student behavior and disproportionately punishes BIPOC populations. Critics of SROs want to see the money and resources deployed elsewhere — toward counselors, not cops.
Earlier this summer, the Providence Alliance for Student Safety Coalition (PASS) released a 70-page plan that details their vision of a school system without police officers. The plan uses academic research, policy reports and data from within and outside Rhode Island to show that the presence of police officers in schools does not protect students, and instead, results in criminalization of Black and brown students (Black students in PVD schools make up 16% of the total student population, but 30% of SRO arrests). PASS wants to see cops taken out of schools in favor of increased funding for and student to staff ratios of mental health workers, school nurses, counselors and safety specialists. The coalition’s plan also demands a committee of youth advocates and allies selected by youth, and calls for restorative justice practices.
“Historically, we’ve seen heavy policing in Black and brown communities,” said youth organizer Samia Nash in a statement. “And seeing that same type of enforcement within the schools in this community seems to set a pattern and idea that Black and brown students are not to be trusted.“
PASS is made up of a number of local student activist groups, including Providence Student Union (PSU), Providence Student Youth Movement, Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education. In order to raise the profile on the issue, PSU organized a two-day walkout last June. The Providence School Board passed a resolution earlier this year saying SROs should be removed; however, because Providence schools are run by the state, changes have to come from the state level. PASS’s plan specifically calls for Governor Dan McKee and RIDE Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green to remove police in Providence and invest in student support. McKee has declined their requests, but acknowledged that there is room for improvement with SROs in schools.
“Mental health resources are needed because we deserve it,” said PSU student leader Michellet Brand. “We are not dangerous, we are simply students trying to go to school.”
SROs started being used in Rhode Island schools in the ’90s, but in Providence the relationship wasn’t solidified until a memorandum of understanding was signed in 2014 between the district and the Providence Police Department. Approximately 77 officers work as SROs in schools across the state; at least six of them are in Providence.
A study from the Center for Youth and Community Leadership in Education at Roger Williams University showed that in the 2016-2019 academic years, there were 230 student arrests in Providence that resulted in 316 charges. The youngest arrestee was 11, and 19% of arrests were among 11 to 13 year olds. Survey and interview data indicates disciplinary structures are inconsistent from school to school, as are the specific roles of SROs and how they respond to infractions. Seventy-two percent of student survey respondents said they were not comfortable with SROs having guns in their school.
The presence of law enforcement in schools decreases academic performance and student mental health. According to a study from the ACLU, there are 392 students for every one school counselor. For social workers, the ratio is 1 to 686 students. In the same study, 44% of Rhode Island students reported having an SRO in school, 18% reported having an SRO in school but no psychologists, nurse, social worker and/or counselors. Black girls in Rhode Island are six times as likely to be arrested in school than white girls.
Rhode Island has also been the site of three recent high profile cases with one police assault at Tolman High School in Pawtucket, another incident in Feb 2018 in Narragansett, and an unlawful arrest of a 13 year old at Goff Middle School.
“These children are arrested in a place of education, where they expected safety and recreation,” said Nash. “Seeing these sorts of events within schools makes one feel like they can’t be or feel safe anywhere.