Tribune columnist Joe Henderson, normally a source of intelligent commentary, recently argued that an incident where a 9-year-old old took a .22-caliber derringer to school justified the expenditure of more than $4.5 million annually to place armed school resource officers (SROs) in all of Hillsborough County’s elementary schools.
In the emotionally charged atmosphere surrounding the murders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, rational decision-making is difficult. Our community naturally wants to prevent additional tragedies, but it is important to avoid bad decisions — especially ones that have unintended but easily foreseeable consequences.
Last spring, Michael Dorn, Hillsborough County school district consultant, recommended hiring the additional SROs. He told the school board that it was remarkable that a system of our size had never had an intentional campus shooting.
In reality, school shooting incidents, though tragic and horrific, are extremely rare. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, we have about 132,000 public and private K-12 schools and 6,700 post-secondary schools. Since 2000, just 6/100ths of 1 percent of our schools experienced a shooting incident. Media coverage of tragic events amplifies and distorts the public’s perception of the actual danger.
We should be careful when applying a cost-benefit analysis when the safety of our children is involved; however, using a single incident involving a nine-year old and a derringer to justify a $4.5 million annual expenditure for additional elementary schools SROs is simply illogical. The unfortunate truth is that no amount of additional spending can guarantee that shooting incidents will not occur.
There is little evidence that the presence of armed SROs will deter them. Most incidents occurred in high schools and post-secondary schools where SROs or campus police forces are likely to be present. SROs at Columbine and campus police at Virginia Tech did not prevent those tragedies.
There are, however, negative consequences associated with placing additional police officers in public schools.
The presence of SROs contributes to the growth of a school-to-prison pipeline. Problems once resolved in the principal’s office often end up in the juvenile justice system. The Florida Justice Policy Institute reported that — during fiscal year 2011-12 — Florida schools referred almost 14,000 students to the juvenile justice system; 1,046 were from Hillsborough County. Nationwide, schools with SROs have nearly five times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without them.
Black, Hispanic and special-needs children disproportionately end up in the pipeline — an experience that ruins many young lives. Information provided to the ACLU by the school system indicates that last year, of incidents resulting in arrests, 48 percent involved blacks, 25 percent Hispanics, 5 percent mixed race, and 21 percent whites. Black and Hispanic students also experience disproportionate rates of in and out of school suspensions.
Georgia Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske notes that kids are “wired to do stupid things.” An early conviction may haunt them for life. A conviction will limit their ability to find a job, a place to live, go to college, and the loss of their right to vote.
SROs frequently deprive students of basic rights. Students are frequently interviewed without their parents or without being informed that they have the right to remain silent and consult an attorney. There are numerous reports of students being handcuffed, Tasered or pepper-sprayed by SROs who exercise poor judgment.
The vast majority of disciplinary infractions occur in the classroom, suggesting that programs to improve the in-class dynamics between students and teachers would be a wiser investment of scarce resources.
The Hillsborough School Board should reject placing SROs in all elementary schools and instead fix a system in which racial and ethnic minorities are over-disciplined and in which they under-perform. The board should adopt policies that, in Teske’s words, focus on “arresting kids that scare us, not the kids who make us mad.”
Mike Pheneger is a retired Army colonel and president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. He lives in Tampa.