Education as if Our Children Mattered: Rejecting the “Cop or Counselor” Binary

September 10, 2018; Gritpost

An article published in Gritpost this month made the alarming declaration, “American Schools Have More Cops Than Social Workers.” We’ve heard this bell rung before; as far back as 1957, school advocates and administrators were arguing about whether limited resources should pay for cops or counselors. But the problem is deeper than how we spend resources; it’s related to the way in which the behavior of people of color is perceived and policed, even when the people in question are children.

First, the posing of the question in these terms—i.e., cops versus counselors—hinges on a false dichotomy, as if they were somehow on opposite ends of a finite seesaw of school resources, with a safe and supportive learning environment balanced precariously in the middle. Police officers and social workers do not serve the same function in schools any more than they do in the community at large.

All children and adolescents develop socially and emotionally as they progress through their academic careers. As Suzanne Bohan noted for NPQ in August, in the US, “More than 40 percent of kids are from low-income families, [and] school teachers and staff regularly cope with problems far larger than algebra equations. Too often, their students are hungry, in need of medical care, traumatized by domestic violence, fearful of gangs, and living with perilous housing security or homelessness.” Rates of adolescent mental health problems are increasing. Dealing with these struggles can be a prerequisite to academic success, but it is a role for which counselors are uniquely equipped, and police officers very much are not.

In fact, the binary proposition of “counselors or cops” both mischaracterizes the role of counselors and proposes a deficit framework for student behavior. Police officers’ presence implies that there will be unacceptable behavior that requires punishment or control.  The false equivalency between counselors and cops casts counselors in the role of managing or changing problematic behaviors, rather promoting healthy socioemotional development, and assumes that students will behave in a way that requires management or control. Kesi Foster, the New York City coordinator for Urban Youth Collaborative, said the Black and Latinx kids he works with “understand the school system sees them always as a potential problem or threat.”

The very concept that a school might have cops reflects long-standing institutionalized racism. Police originally began to patrol schools in response to the panic white communities expressed when legal desegregation began to take effect, according to the ACLU’s white paper, Bullies in Blue: Origins and Consequences of School Policing. The report’s authors write, “At its origins, school policing enforced social control over Black and [Latinx] youth who could no longer be kept out of neighborhoods and schools through explicitly discriminatory laws…Classifying Black and [Latinx] youth as ‘delinquent’ or ‘potentially delinquent’ rationalized an expanding police presence for the expressed purposes of preventing future crime.” It continues to be the case that schools predominately attended by children of color are more likely to have “school resource officers,” a euphemism for police.

To obscure the fact that police are in schools primarily because of racist fears in white communities, alternative explanations have been proposed. The National Association for School Resource Officers describes officers’ responsibilities as an “educator, informal counselor, and law enforcement officer,” but again, police are only actually qualified for the third role; the first two require degrees that most police do not have. Public officials often push for increased police presence in schools in response to school shootings, but data have shown that police presence does not make schools safer, especially since the shooters are primarily white, middle-class male students and the police are primarily in schools attended by children of color.

The colonial or white supremacist attitudes that lead white communities to aggressively police the behavior of people color is well documented, and those attitudes are equally or more evident in schools, where children of color face far higher rates of discipline than white children for the same behaviors. Gritpost’s Katelyn Kivel writes, “Paper airplanes, hoodies or bandanas, juvenile disagreements and simple infractions against school norms have become criminal, jailable acts in American schools.”

In her book, bad boys, Ann Arnett Ferguson writes that Black boys are doubly displaced from appropriate perceptions of their behavior:

As Black children, they are not seen as childlike but adultified; as black males, they are denied the masculine dispensation constituting white males as ‘naturally naughty’ and are discerned as willfully bad.” She explains, “their transgressions are made to take on a sinister, intentional, fully conscious tone that is stripped of any element of childish naïveté.

Enforcing discipline through the legal system reinforces a perception of Black children as consciously or inevitably criminal, rather than simply as children learning to navigate social mores. The problem is exacerbated by vague words like “disruption” and “disrespect” in conduct codes that give broad discretion in application and enforcement, which often leads to more students of color being disciplined.

In fact, seen in this light, the presence of police in schools is actively harmful. It characterizes school as a place where children are controlled, rather than one in which they come to learn and grow. And when police react to normal childish behavior as if it were criminal, it creates a culture of fear and antagonism. Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, noted that the “often toxic relationship between law enforcement and communities of color frequently begins in schools.” Conversely, Suzanne Bohan described a school in which culture vastly improved when punitive discipline was replaced with counseling and restorative justice.

The false idea that cops and counselors are simply options for managing behavior and students, particularly students of color, actively works against building a healthy learning environment. Approaching school resources from a growth mindset that prioritizes student health, learning, and autonomy might give us a different equation entirely.—Erin Rubin