By Jose Martinez-Saldana
There comes a time when each of us comes to terms with aspects of life that can change our views and challenge long held beliefs. For me it is the present issue of police in schools (school resource officers).
I grew up believing that police were the good guys, and I still believe the majority of police are good people. That is not the issue at hand.
The issue for me is SROs makes schools less safe. In my 30-plus years of work at colleges partnering with public schools throughout California, I can count on one hand instances when police presence was warranted. That is not a unique experience; most schools are quite safe from violence that some media want us to believe happens daily in every school. It is just amplified fear-mongering.
The myth of violence at schools has long been used as a justification to place police officers in school settings. But research shows that for the past 35 years violence at schools has decreased each year (tinyurl.com/y4te6msa). Today, U.S. schools are safer than ever.
What has been increasing is the frequency with which SRO involvement results in youth getting arrested, cited or otherwise “in the system” for discipline issues that historically were handled successfully by the school discipline process.
More troubling is the disproportionate impact on African American and Latino students. I recall the push to establish a police substation at my high school in the late ‘70s, using some fights at Overfelt High School in the mid-1960s as the justification. Overfelt was a school with 90 percent students of color, many with negative experiences with law enforcement.
We need to remember that schools were designed to be the socializing mechanism for American values and to prepare children for college, the workforce, or other aspirations.
The federal government’s escalation in the war on drugs and passage of the Three Strikes law put millions of people behind bars on maximum sentences for non-violent crimes. We know it costs between $50,000-$90,000 per year to house an inmate. A few of my high school classmates that were system involved have been in and out of jail for 40 years, so even if only half that time, the cost to us has been huge for each ($50,000 x 20 years = $1,000,000).
When passed in 1978, Proposition 13, decimated funding for schools, sports, staff, counselors and after school activities. Most non-academic programs at my high school were eliminated that year. Prop. 13 also eliminated funding for social services in the community.
Teachers were put in a tough situation to deal with larger class sizes, no support for students with special needs or experiencing behavioral or other health issues. Some schools accepted SROs because it was the only resource available.
The lives of youth are harmed and impacted from experiences that destroy whatever normalcy school provides and increases the likelihood they will get into more trouble with the justice system. The spiral robs them of their future, and it robs society of positive contributing citizens.
We can change the narrative by removing all police presence in schools and re-investing those resources to increase the counseling and support students need to succeed. This also frees up police to focus on police work, not part time teaching or social work, for which they are untrained.
Jose Martinez-Saldana is a doctoral candidate at University of La Verne, Deputy Director of Programs at Youth Alliance, former Dean of Student Services at West Valley College, a father of a high school sophomore, and a resident of Aromas.