The Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District in Texas has its own police department, complete with four officers, a detective and security staff who patrol the campus and its entrances. This didn’t prevent a gunman from killing 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School last week.
Despite this inability to stop the shooter’s hour-long siege, the attack has renewed demands to increase police presence in schools as a solution to shooting incidents. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, continued the pattern when he called for more armed school police, describing them as “the most effective tool for keeping kids safe.”
However, experts say that increasing police in schools is not effective in preventing or stopping mass shootings. Furthermore, adding more police officers to schools, they say, would contribute to disproportionate levels of punishment and criminalization on Black and Latino students, and would waste an opportunity to increase security without defaulting to added police presence.
“The research is clear that more police and hardening schools doesn’t work,” said Patrick Bresette, executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas. “The millions and millions of dollars we’re spending on more law enforcement is at the cost of more effective ways to help kids; to provide mental health support, to identify someone who might be at risk of some sort of bad behavior, and to have a holistic response in schools. It’s following the evidence. There are ways to prevent this that we’re not investing in.”
This debate over school police isn’t new, though. Organizers have long pointed out the negative impacts of police in schools: Black and Latino children are more likely to be criminalized by school officers, and there are no sweeping federal laws that regulate the police use of force on students. In the last 15 years, police in schools across the country have been reported as punishing students for common childhood behaviors such as talking back to teachers and fighting.
William Bentley previously told NBC News that at least five police officers at Strawberry Mansion High School in Philadelphia beat him when he was 14 years old. He said an officer approached him after he accidentally entered the wrong classroom, and more police joined him.
“The police officer grabbed my neck and choked me. I couldn’t breathe,” said Bentley, who said he shook himself free and fled. “I was gripped up, slammed and beaten like I was an adult.”
This treatment, experts say, will continue to be an unintended consequence of adding more police to schools.
Finding alternatives to throwing police officers at the problem
Ron Avi Astor, an expert on school violence at the University of California, Los Angeles, said he has seen “no evidence” that a police presence at schools stops gun violence. In fact, he added, “all these law enforcement measures actually have really negative mental health, academic connection to school consequences.”
Astor is one of 18 professors and researchers across the country who joined in the wake of the Uvalde shooting to provide an evidence-based plan to government leaders for combatting school gun violence without increasing police presence. The eight-point plan includes everything from gun measures to providing community-based mental health services for students in need.
“We should be making our policy decisions based on data,” Astor said. “These are the main things that we’re calling for that we know, using the research, works. If we do these in concert, we will save many, many lives. The solution needs to be multipronged. It can’t just be more guns to teachers, more police officers in schools. You need prevention layers.”
Other experts, academics and advocates also point to data showing that police don’t stop school gun violence and say schools and authorities should take a different approach: properly staff schools with counselors, social workers and teachers to build relationships with students; introduce strict gun control measures, limiting access to assault weapons; end zero tolerance discipline models; and intervene early when students appear to be at risk of harming themselves or others.
Organizations like the Children’s Defense Fund of Texas are already advocating for these changes. Bresette, its executive director, said the group is part of the Safe & Supportive Schools Collaborative and helps train Texas school personnel in “alternative threat assessment approaches” to respond to students’ needs and struggles without prioritizing punitive measures and police interactions.
Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter at Schools has chapters across the country working with school districts and city officials to hire more on-site counselors and implement rehabilitative discipline models instead of carceral ones.
“We need to do things that we know do create safe environments for students,” said Erika Strauss Chavarria, an organizer with Black Lives Matter at Schools. “We need to make sure we’re hiring more educators of color that actually reflect the demographics of students in the school buildings and in our communities. Making sure that we have enough staff to have one-on-one relationships with students so if we see there’s something not quite right, we can address that.”
What the data says
Calls for more police in schools are common after mass shootings on campuses. For example, the Florida Legislature mandated that every public school in the state have an officer or armed school employee following the 2018 Parkland high school shooting.
But research has shown that officer presence does little to curb gun violence in schools overall. A 2021 study from researchers at the University at Albany and the RAND Corporation, examining U.S. school data from 2014 to 2018, found that while school police “do effectively reduce some forms of violence in schools,” they “do not prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents.”
A 2018 Washington Post report found that officers successfully intervened in only two of nearly 200 gun violence incidents in schools across the country, including the shooting in Parkland, where the school’s armed security officer did not enter the building nor try to engage the shooter.
Advocates say that discussions about school policing must acknowledge racial disparities. Schools with larger Black and Latino populations are more likely to have police officers in the halls, metal detectors and security cameras, making the students more likely to be stunned, assaulted or pepper-sprayed by police. And police often criminalize Black children for conduct considered common among kids — like mouthing off or fighting at school.
“We know from all the data regarding the school-to-prison pipeline, we know that police presence is unsafe for Black and brown students, and it causes our young people to interact with law enforcement in a way that has a huge impact on their future,” Chavarria said.
Experts say ramping up police presence at schools will disproportionately impact Black and Latino students. The University at Albany and RAND study also found that school officers’ presence leads to more suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, chronic absences and arrests for students, and Black students are two times more likely than whites to experience these consequences.
Uvalde’s school district security plan includes a threat-reporting system, social media monitoring software, threat assessment teams, fences around the schools and a locked classroom door mandate, in addition to having its own police department. Officials have said the district’s plan is not in noncompliance with statewide requirements. Uvalde is about 83 miles west of San Antonio and is in a region with a large Mexican American population.
Now, as the Uvalde community and the nation cope with the tragedy, Bresette said he can envision a future in which students are protected without the presence of police in schools.
“The goal is to get to a place where the school is supportive,” Bresette said, adding that members of the Children’s Defense Fund are close to many Uvalde residents. “If that was the vision, you would not be militarizing schools, you would be making them as safe and supportive as you possibly could.”