On Tuesday, the University of Connecticut Gun Violence Prevention Research Interest Group, a part of UConn’s InCHIP, hosted a virtual panel discussion promoting alternatives to police in schools and addressed the school to prison pipeline.
The event featured Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy and much of the discussion centered around his Senate Bill No. 4360: Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act, which aims to reduce police presence in schools and divert resources and funding towards evidence-based and trauma informed services to support marginalized students.
“I’m really excited about helping to lead a conversation that ultimately leads to reform. Not just reform in terms of the different kinds of security that we put in schools, but also reform that understands that the way you really build a safe learning environment is by building a positive school,” Murphy said.
The panel included Steven Hernández, Executive Director for the Commission on Women, Children and Seniors; Leonard Jahad, Executive Director of Connecticut Victim Intervention Program; Dr. Aaron Kupchik, Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Delaware along with Dr. Sandra Chafouleas, who is a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor as the moderator.
Kupchik, who has a history of research on the subject of policing and punishment of juveniles in schools, made the point that there needs to be more positive ethos in schools. Treating children as children who need guidance and support, not as criminals and regarding their situations and struggles with empathy and support are key.
When posed with the question of what role law enforcement should have in schools, all three panelists had similar thoughts.
Kupchik suggested having a school and police liaison where there are no School Resource Officers with a regular campus presence, but rather some officers within a local department designated for the school should the need for them arise.
Hernández felt schools should take a “we’ll call you when we need you” approach, similar to Kupchik, because the greater focus should be on building social and emotional skills and amplifying diversity because “young people need to see themselves before them.”
It was particularly impactful when Jahad pulled his experiences working with law enforcement and his personal conversation with SROs to show the stigma SROs face.
SROs are forced to be put in roles as police. They became patrollers, rather than the advocates and role models they wish to be. It is hard to have a relationship with students when there is an imbalance in power dynamic between the students and the SROs.
“They don’t want to walk up and the kids just walk away. They wanted to really have a relationship with the kids and not to be used as a source when the kids got in trouble,” according to Jahad.
Students tend to go to a trusted teacher or administrator, when problems arise instead of the SRO. Yet these officers are expected to be counselors, role models, mentors, truant officers, and often a replacement for the vice principal — all at the same time.
It is imperative to dig deeper into the struggles of students, especially LGBTQ+ youth, those with disabilities and students of color, as they are found to receive punishment at an increased rate compared to other students.
“They don’t want to walk up and the kids just walk away. They wanted to really have a relationship with the kids and not to be used as a source when the kids got in trouble,”
According to Kupchik, “recent research using nationwide data finds that schools with SROs have higher arrest rates, particularly of Black students in similarly situated schools.” It was also found that although all SROs prepare for threats, they tend to view potential threats differently across school contexts and student body contexts.
In white schools, threats are usually seen as outsiders but in schools with more lower income students of color, the students themselves are perceived as the threats. The police officer’s presence and their handling of situations varies, which puts students of color at greater risk.
There was a general consensus that by providing students and teachers with support, there will be room for greater relationship building, which only benefits the learning environment. Teachers must see themselves “beyond the realm of instruction,” said Jahad.