Weaponising US schools

Though US education budgets are being slashed, security presence in schools is on the rise.

The security presence in US schools has increased since the Sandy Hook attack [AP]

A federal grant to fund police in schools reveals the deep hypocrisy of neoliberal reform in public education.

This school year, classrooms across the US are feeling the pinch of sequestration, which has left them with even fewer teachers and resources than ever before. But not to worry! The shrunken staff and their students will soon be joined by the company of an enlarged police force stalking the halls of public schools.

As the Department of Education braces for an average cut of five percent across all of its programmes – disproportionately affecting the neediest kids – the Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) will cough up nearly $45m in order to add 356 new school resource officers (known as SROs) to public schools. This allotment represents a tripling of what was given to COPS in 2011 for school policing.

This incongruity of de-funding teachers while ramping up a so-called security presence in schools is exemplified in Phoenix, Arizona, a city that has been awarded $1.875m to employ 15 new SROs, while at least one of its school districts will lose $750,000 that would have otherwise gone towards teachers’ salaries and school maintenance.

Arguing for less state “interference” and more free-market ideas and privatisation, the government facilitates its own withdrawal from providing for public education while it expands the role of police in schools. It’s a familiar paradox that increasingly governs most of American public life.

‘Neoliberal penalty’

In his book The Illusion of Free Markets, Bernard Harcourt, a professor of law and political science at the University of Chicago, coins the term “neoliberal penalty” for the idea that the only proper role of government is to punish wrongdoers. Harcourt describes the cognitive dissonance of “a society that is marked by fear of big government and scepticism of government efficiency, a resounding embrace of free-market ideals and paradoxically, the largest government-run prison bureaucracy in the world in raw numbers or per capita”.

Research shows that, all else being equal, schools with an SRO on campus had nearly five times the rate of arrests for “disorderly conduct”.

Thus we see public education, considered a fundamental aspect of a vibrant democracy, increasingly regarded with derision – polls show a majority of Americans favour the creation of charter schools – while increased policing of children is sanctioned. Bill Finch, the mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut – whose city is the recipient of almost $2.25m from COPS – thanked the Department of Justice, remarking, “With these new SROs, the result will be safer schools and a better climate for education”.

But far from engendering a constructive climate that improves the quality of education or increases safety for children, the presence of SROs has been documented to simply increase juvenile incarceration, greasing the wheels of a machine that mainlines youth from schools to prisons with swift efficiency.

The presence of SROs, which are in fact just police officers with a bit of extra training in “working” with children, proliferated in the mid-1990s with the adoption of “zero tolerance policies” in schools. What began as zero tolerance for carrying firearms on campuses metastasised to include any conduct deemed “out-of-order”. And while shocking stories such as the six-year-old girl being hand-cuffed and taken away for having an emotional outburst grab headlines and deserve the public outcry they receive, just as disturbing but less visible is the insidious, widespread criminalisation of teenagers the proliferation of SROs has created.

Research shows that, all else being equal, schools with an SRO on campus had nearly five times the rate of arrests for “disorderly conduct” – conduct that includes the usual gamut of fairly innocuous teenage behaviour: schoolyard fights, swearing in class or disobeying a teacher.

Observing the dramatic and perversely direct correlation between the use of SROs and juvenile incarceration, expulsion and suspension, some counties have attempted to curtail the presence of law enforcement in schools. One of the few successes occurred in Clayton County, Georgia, where Judge Steven Teske of Juvenile Court observed that between 1996 – the year SROs were introduced to the county – and 2004, referrals from schools to his court increased by more than 1,000 percent. In 2003, Teske initiated a laborious process to reduce contact between students and law enforcement, ultimately resulting in an 83 percent reduction in student referrals to juvenile court.

Mirroring the entrenched racism of the adult criminal justice system, public schools feed students of colour into the juvenile courts at a much higher rate than their white counterparts. Indeed, Teske documented that 80 percent of all student referrals to his court were African-American.

However, Obama’s Department of Justice appears bent on ignoring the success of Clayton County as well as the abundance of evidence that shows that SROs don’t make kids safer, preferring to heed the advice of the NRA proffered in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook killings that called for more guns in schools.

Now contrast the government’s willingness to throw money at school police with its increasing reluctance to support public schools. As Diane Ravitch notes, corporate “reformers” have selected their words carefully – promoting “choice” rather than “privatisation”, thus shrewdly blaming the government for interfering with the public’s options while obscuring who will benefit from the healthy “competition” of the free market.

In 2012, Joel Klein and Condoleezza Rice authored a Council of Foreign Relations report intended to push privately owned charter schools as alternatives to the traditional public school system. The report quotes Albert Shanker, a controversial former leader of the teachers’ union, writing in 1989: “It is time to admit that public education [is] a bureaucratic system where everybody’s role is spelled out in advance, and there are few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise when a school system does not improve. It more resembles a Communist economy than our own market economy.”

Shanker’s old words have been hauled out to support wielding an axe to public school funding, and his quest for “our own market economy” to descend upon schools looks to be not too far off in the future. And what do we see there? Fewer teachers with fewer basic supplies, but a cop in every classroom.

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist currently based in San Francisco. She has written for Inter Press Service, Truthout, The Electronic Intifada, Al Ahkbar and many other publications. 

You can follow Charlotte on Twitter @CharESilver.