Mental Health Matters: Why Law Enforcement Doesn’t Belong in Schools

In December 2018, an 8-year-old boy with special needs was handcuffed, patted down, and told he’d be going to jail—all for not sitting properly during school. Video of this incident was recently released by the boy’s family attorney, sparking renewed conversation about the presence of police officers in schools. Now, as school districts explore whether, when, and if they can open in-person amidst the unprecedented public health crisis of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to make sure that schools are able to support students—especially their mental health needs.

The National Alliance for Mental Illness reports that one in five youth will develop mental health difficulties before the age of 18. In 2020, young people are experiencing increasing rates of stress related to the ongoing pandemic, including over their own health, their sick and dying relatives, uncertainty about future academic and employment opportunities, homelessness, and more. Most concerning, children and adolescents are likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety during and even after quarantine measures end. School-based mental health providers are the first responders to many children and youth in need; approximately 75 percent of elementary, middle, and high school students receive mental health care in school settings. Unlike police, who are generally not trained in adolescent development, trauma, and neuroscience, mental health professionals are uniquely qualified to identify early signs of trouble and treat students with specific mental health needs. Studies show that providing these services not only improves health outcomes for the children served, but also makes schools safer overall.

By contrast, there is no conclusive evidence that police in schools improve either students’ mental health, educational outcomes, or their safety. Instead, this practice has led to the criminalization of youth, particularly youth of color and those with disabilities, and has helped to create the school-to-prison pipeline. As a result of the historical structural racism of policing in this country, Black boys are three times as likely to be arrested at school as their White male peers. Similarly, girls of color, though often left out of conversations about increases in policing, are disproportionately affected by the presence of law enforcement in schools: Black and Brown girls are six times more likely to be suspended than their White female peers—a greater racial disparity than that of boys. According to federal data, in the 2015-2016 school year, Black students as a whole accounted for 15 percent of the school population nationally but accounted for 31 percent of arrests. Similar disparities exist for students with disabilities, who make up 12 percent of the student population, but 25 percent of students referred to law enforcement in schools.

Even before the nationwide daily protests addressing police brutality and racial inequality in our country began, experts were sounding the alarm about the harmful effects of the presence of police in schools and the need to shift resources from law enforcement to mental health services for students. Locating police in schools has not been shown to keep students safe, and there is mounting evidence their presence can, in fact, significantly disrupt learning environments.

Unfortunately, despite its 2018 Federal Commission on School Safety report that acknowledged the importance of mental health services for youth in schools, the federal government ignored calls to increase resources for school counselors and instead directed more funding toward hiring school police. In June 2020 the Department of Justice announced a new grant of $400 million in Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) funding, a program which, supplemented by state grants and local monies, has helped fund police in schools since the 1999 Columbine shooting. Currently nearly 60 percent of schools and nearly 90 percent of high schools now have an officer at least part-time. And, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), more than a million students in the U.S. attend a school where there is a police officer and no counselor, and 14 million students are in schools with police but no nurse, counselor, psychologist, or social worker.

At a time when upending institutional racism is finally being recognized as a priority, this outsized investment in locating police in school settings is misplaced. Instead, resources should be devoted to providing students with the social, emotional, and behavioral supports they will need as they return to school in the middle of an ongoing public health emergency. Now more than ever, mental health services need to be developmentally appropriate, trauma informed, bring a genuine focus on healing, and build protective and promotive factors in youth so they are better able to learn, succeed in school, and become healthy adults. As teachers struggle to help students reach their academic targets and offer some proximity of “normalcy,” efforts should go to building trust and a sense of safety in the classroom for students and staff alike so that children and youth can reach their full potential.