ACLU report questions police presence in schools, says programs fuel ‘school to prison’ pipeline

ACLU report questions police presence in schools, says programs fuel ‘school to prison’ pipeline
A report by the ACLU, released Thursday, found that school police programs fuel a “school to prison” pipeline and disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. (World-Herald News Service)

LINCOLN — In one case, police were called over elementary school-age brothers yelling and cursing at each other.

In another, a school employee referred a student for stealing a candy bar from her desk.

A third involved a middle school student caught writing on her desk.

The ACLU of Nebraska cited these and other cases in a new report questioning how school police programs operate in Nebraska. The report, released Thursday, says the programs fuel a “school to prison” pipeline and disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities.

“As a result of having a permanent police presence in schools, children are far more likely to be subject to school-based arrests for disciplinary matters than they were a generation ago,” said Rose Godinez, a co-author of the report and a state ACLU legal and policy counsel.

“A school-based arrest is the quickest route from the classroom to the courthouse,” she said.

The report was based on information provided by 34 school districts that employed or contracted with law enforcement agencies during the 2015-16 school year and by the 18 law enforcement agencies that worked with those districts.

Key findings include:

  • A total of 1,502 students in public schools with school police were referred to law enforcement during the 2015-16 school year. But about 200 of those were for wellness checks, traffic offenses, truancy and offenses occurring off school grounds.
  • Some counties in Nebraska have schools with police but no counselor, social worker or school nurse.
  • And 56 percent of Nebraska districts with school police do not require that a parent be notified when their child is questioned about an incident at school. Even fewer law enforcement agencies have policies about parental notification.
  • In some school districts, students of color account for twice as large a share of those referred to police than their share of the student population. The same goes for students with disabilities.

For example, students of color account for 33 percent of the students in the Lincoln Public Schools but 70 percent of those referred to police. In the Omaha Public Schools, students with disabilities are 18 percent of the student population but 44 percent of those referred.

Russ Uhing, LPS director of student services, said the district is aware of the disparities and has been working to address them. Efforts include diversion programs for students, training for school administrators and school resource officers about when referrals are appropriate and strategies to encourage good behavior and prevent problem behavior in schools.

In Omaha, Police Capt. Russ Horine said additional data would be helpful for understanding the apparent disparities but noted that referral decisions are made by school officials.

“We don’t want to bring students into the system if we can help that,” he said.

“The data presented in this report is shocking but, unfortunately, unsurprising,” said Juliet Summers, policy coordinator at Voices for Children in Nebraska. She said the report suggests that students are losing the chance to be just teenagers with teenage behaviors, and are being turned into suspects or criminals instead.

Scout Richter, an ACLU legal and policy counsel and co-author of the report, said the findings are similar to those seen on a national level.

Both nationally and in Nebraska, the use of school resource officers increased during the tough-on-crime years of the 1990s. Many schools added or expanded programs in response to more recent school shootings.

But Danielle Conrad, executive director of the state ACLU, said school police programs can have troubling consequences for students’ civil rights and personal liberty. She called for a better balance of safety and liberty in the programs.

The report called for an end to routine policing of schools, saying police should enter schools only to address public safety threats. It also called for officers to stop arresting students for disciplinary problems, disturbances and other common adolescent behavior. Among other recommendations, the report suggested legislation protecting students’ rights during questioning, strong memorandums of understanding between school districts and law enforcement, more police training on topics such as adolescent development and de-escalating tense situations, better data collection and efforts to inform parents and students about legal rights.