In the weeks since the incident at Jeffersontown High School, questions have been raised about whether the district should continue to have School Resource Officers (SROs). As I have followed this issue on social media, I have been dismayed, not that there are those speaking out in favor of SROs, but that so many are refusing to even acknowledge that there is another side to this issue. This is an important conversation that needs to be had. And both sides need to be heard.
I am a parent of six children who are former or current JCPS students, three of whom are black males. As a white parent of black sons, I have had a rude awakening to what black parents have known for years: the unjust criminalization of black men in this country is very real, very painful, and very damaging to the young black males we are raising.
I can cite numerous examples in my sons’ young lives in which they have already experienced this. I will share one with you here. One of my sons has fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, which causes speech and language delays, as well as brain damage in the area of the brain that controls emotion. By the time he was in kindergarten, he had an IEP which included instructions on how to handle him if he became escalated. His kindergarten teacher evidently neglected to read his IEP and had a conflict with him one day that ultimately resulted in him physically attacking her. Having been on the receiving end of his attacks before, I knew how upsetting they could be. However, he was also small for his age and clearly developmentally delayed. So I was shocked when I arrived at the school to meet with her and the first words out of her mouth were, “Just so you know, I plan to press criminal charges.” On a five-year-old. Who was small for his age. With a mental health disability.
Thankfully, when I reminded her of his IEP and pointed out that she didn’t follow it, she chose not to follow through. But I have often wondered in the years since, if that school had an SRO at the time, would he have already been under arrest by the time I arrived? If the teacher had had her way, he would have been. I also came away wondering what made her look at my child and see a criminal instead of a scared, damaged little boy?
The answer to that is the color of his skin. Dr. Kristin Anderson notes in Psychology Today that studies in facial perception have shown that white Americans interpret anger in a neutral facial expression for African American males, but don’t do so for other people. In video simulation studies people fire at an armed target more quickly if he is African American than if he is white, and they decide not to shoot an unarmed white target more quickly than an unarmed African American target. If a target is black, respondents require less certainty that he is holding a gun before they decide to shoot. Anderson suggests that this is at least partly due to our brains being conditioned by what we see on TV, where “African American men are overrepresented as criminal suspects and underrepresented as victims of crime in comparison to actual crime statistics.”
No matter how well-intentioned any of us are, or how much we abhor racism, we all (including African Americans) have been conditioned to criminalize black men. This truth is lived out in our criminal justice system.
According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites. African American children represent 32% of children who are arrested, 42% of children who are detained, and 52% of children whose cases are judicially waived to criminal court. Added to this, a report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission published just last month noted that black men serve sentences that are on average 19.1 percent longer than those for white men for similar crimes.
Parents of African American males in the school system are justified in our concerns that SROs in the schools actually threaten our sons’ safety. If they get arrested at school, the consequences for them are much more likely to be greater than they are for their white counterparts. The Justice Policy Institute notes that not only are black students three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, one study showed that white students were more likely to be disciplined for provable, documentable offenses — smoking, vandalism, and obscene language — while black students were more likely to be disciplined for more subjective reasons, such as disrespect.
The Institute also noted, “A landmark study of Texas discipline policies found that 97 percent of school suspensions were the choice of school administrators. Only 3 percent of students had broken rules that made suspension a required punishment, such as carrying a weapon to school. And those discretionary suspensions fell particularly hard on black students: they were 31 percent more likely to receive a discretionary suspension, even after controlling for 83 other variables.” One report from the Justice Policy Institute found that, even controlling for a school district’s poverty level, schools with officers had five times as many arrests for “disorderly conduct” as schools without them. Those arrests disproportionately affect black male students. As noted above, those black male students get significantly harsher consequences once they have found their way into the juvenile justice system than other students do.
As long as we live in a society where African American men serve sentences 19.1 percent longer than white men for similar offenses, I don’t want police officers in schools.
As long as we live in a society where African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites, I don’t want police officers in schools.
As long as we live in a society where African American children represent 52% of the arrests of children that get waived to criminal court, I don’t want police officers in schools.
As long as we live in a society where black students are being disciplined at school at higher rates for the same offenses as other students, I don’t want police officers in schools.
As long as we live in a society where a kindergarten teacher can look at a five year old black child and see a criminal instead of a damaged, scared little boy, I don’t want police officers in schools.
Does this mean I don’t care about school safety? Of course not. Does this mean I think SROs should be pulled out of all the schools with no alternative plan in place? Absolutely not. It simply means the district needs to examine this issue closely and determine if SROs truly makes everyone safer, or in fact threaten the safety of one segment of the population. If this is the case, then we need to look at other alternatives for keeping our schools safe – one that makes EVERYONE safer, not just some.
The views expressed here are those of the author. If you or someone you know has a concern regarding events taking place at JTown or another JCPS school, you are encouraged to submit a letter using our open letter form.