(EDITOR’S NOTE, 9/13/18, 12:29 PM ET: The headline of this article has been changed from “American Schools Now Officially Have More Cops Than Counselors” to “American Schools Have More Cops Than Social Workers.” However, the study does specify that millions of students go to schools that have police but no counselors. Also, a hyperlink at the end of the article was updated to direct to the ACLU/UCLA study.)

Schools are back in session, and youngsters are getting ready to learn. On the curriculum this fall is a first-hand lesson in the criminal justice system, as increasingly detention is being replaced with jail.

In 2012, police arrested a student in Milledgeville, Georgia. The student was crying and flailing in the principal’s office and was inconsolable. The student was charged with battery. The school was Creekside Elementary School. The student was a six-year-old girl in kindergarten.

Local law enforcement chose not to pursue criminal charges in that case.

As school behavior is increasingly the purview of criminal prosecution, fewer counselors and mental health professionals are around to help students, according to findings from a series of studies conducted by UCLA and the American Civil Liberties Union.

The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor per 250 students, but 60 percent of schools did not meet this standard. Instead, the average is one counselor serving 444 students. But for 1.7 million students, there are no counselors, only cops.

According to the ACLU, schools nationally reported 27,000 sworn law enforcement officers, but only 23,000 social workers. And this has caused the issue of school discipline to change the scope of punishment from detention to prosecution.

The 2018 STOP School Violence Act provided $75 million in funding for school resource officers, the sworn law enforcement officers, but no funding was given to provide social services to schools. That same priority exists on the state level: New Hampshire spent $30 million on beefing up school security but allocated no additional funding for mental health.

Los Angeles spends $67 million a year on a police force for schools alone.

In the ACLU’s At Liberty podcast entitled “Criminalizing Schools” the case of a 14-year old girl charged with assault with a weapon for throwing a baby carrot at another student served as the introduction to the topic. Paper airplanes, hoodies or bandanas, juvenile disagreements and simple infractions against school norms have become criminal, jail-able acts in American schools.

“A lot of the students are ending up in juvenile detention centers, jails if they’re over 18,” said Amir Whitaker, Staff Attorney for ACLU of Southern California. “And we know in the 2015-16 school year, the data shows there are almost 300,000 arrest and referrals reported across the country and that’s a lot.”

The most common charge students face is disorderly conduct, according to Whitaker, but more serious charges aren’t unusual. But of the million cases considered serious offenses, only three percent involved weapons. And “weapons” are broadly defined; far from limited to guns, a “weapon” ranges from baby carrots to staplers.

“if a student has a temper tantrum or bad day, and the school has a police officer instead of a counselor, then, you know, it’s like having a hammer instead of a screwdriver to respond to a screw,” said Whitaker. “I’ve represented students that have had bad days or temper tantrums where they’ve maybe thrown a stapler and have been charged with assault and battery.”

And this extreme discipline has a racial and ablest bias. Black students make up 15 percent of nationwide enrollment but 31 percent of referrals to law enforcement and arrests. There are also increased dangers of arrest for Hispanic, Asian and disabled students. And this has specific and measurable effects on these communities.

A major area of school discipline is “defiance suspensions,” which is the school version of disorderly conduct. It can range from talking faster and seeming defiant to chewing gum to dress code violations. Defiance suspensions can easily be disorderly conduct arrests if school resource officers choose to get involved.

290,000 students were reported arrested in 2015-2016, despite large school districts often failing to report arrests altogether.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, however, is encouraging refocusing teachers away from seeing children as young people with a need for care and toward seeing children as criminals, continuing the trend of replacing counselors with cops by arming teachers with deadly force.

“When you put an army in a place, you’re going to get a war,” said Whitaker.

The ACLU/UCLA data can be viewed here.


Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.

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  1. Why was the original title of the post changed? As a school counselor who works with all students on mental health and well-being, with several social-worker colleagues who fill the role of counselor, it seems like the more broad definition would be most inclusive of the variable mental health resources offered to students.

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