Schools & Police: The Need For PresenceBy Kathleen Sommerfield | Feb 27, 2018
While the recent school mass shooting in Florida is on the minds of people across the nation, this article is not directly in response to that incident. Rather, I’m discussing the frequent day-to-day aggression that occurs between students in our schools and just one factor that I believe can make an impact on reducing it.
Just so you understand where my views are coming from, I’ll share a little about myself. I am currently employed as a school social worker at a junior high school in a Chicago suburb. Prior to my current career, I retired after working as a police officer for nearly 21 years in another Chicago suburb. The community I previously worked in placed great emphasis on providing safety in and around the schools. Officers who were on duty during school hours were required to monitor the schools in their patrol area at arrival and dismissal times. In addition, officers were required to meet with school administrators to address any concerns they had and wanted our assistance with.
Students saw police at their schools nearly every day. They understood that they were there to keep them safe and their mere presence did not mean that something bad had happened. Teachers and staff knew the police were there to make a positive impact on the lives of the students. I was one of many officers who were given the privilege of going into classrooms to teach students how to make good decisions and how to stay safe. As a result of these efforts, parents, teachers, and students viewed the officers as caring people who were there for the welfare of the community. Children sat side by side with a police officer in the cafeteria while they ate lunch or played a game of kickball with them at recess. The officers were viewed as role models and treated with respect.
When many local municipalities faced financial hardships and devastating budget cuts in 2008 and 2009, community leaders decided to reassign officers who worked in schools back to patrol. After all, they asserted that the research did not show the effectiveness of these school programs. Many communities throughout the area moved to a reactive approach with regard to school safety. I believe this is one factor that contributed to the loss of public trust in law enforcement.
In the school I work now, kids often only see police officers in the building if they are responding to an incident. Many of the students I work with suffer from anxiety and have strong negative reactions to the presence of police, experiencing heightened negative emotional reactions at the sight of an officer or squad car. They don’t believe that officers are there to help them. They’re afraid.
And so they don’t respect police authority. They record the police officer’s actions and post the videos on social media to be mocked and criticized. Did these community leaders who made the decisions to remove officers from our schools consider these possible consequences? I did, but my voice was not powerful enough. I predicted this and ultimately decided to change careers because of it.
Where do we go from here?
Local police agencies need to make more of an effort to build cooperative relationships with school administrators so that they will be invited back into the buildings. Schools are miniature communities within the larger community and the students in them are our future. We have an amazing opportunity in schools to make positive connections with hundreds of students every day.
Officers need to work to develop positive relationships with the students so they will be viewed as their protectors. Parents need to be able to see the good that officers do to help them guide their children. School administrators also need to be more willing to reach out to local law enforcement agencies for help and not worry that having officers in the schools will lead to a negative stigma for the district.
Ultimately, an added benefit to the increased police presence in schools will be better student behavior. Officers will be more available to employ evidence-based strategies in juvenile justice to curb illegal behaviors. Students will be held more accountable for their actions. By continuing to minimize these behaviors, students will continue them and will likely end up in the adult criminal justice system.
For these reasons and many more not discussed here, we need to increase the presence of police in our schools. These actions will prove to be well worth their cost in the long run.