Posted on September 11, 2021

School Policing Falls Hardest on Black Students and Those with Disabilities, Study Shows

Corey Mitchell et al., USA Today, September 8, 2021

A school safety officer removed a third grader from class, took him to a staff bathroom, closed the door and berated him, telling the frightened child to “stop crying like a little girl.”

His crime? Refusing to leave art class after an argument with another student at their northeast Philadelphia elementary school.

{snip} Nationally, students were referred to law enforcement nearly 230,000 times during the 2017-18 school year, exemplifying why demands to restrict policing at schools are growing.

“You’ve got some police officers that just can’t help themselves,” said the child’s father, Isaac Gardner. “You’re taking a little elementary school child in the bathroom. You ain’t supposed to be doing that.”

A Center for Public Integrity analysis of U.S. Department of Education data found that school policing disproportionately affects students with disabilities, Black children and, in some states, Native American and Latino children. Nationwide, Black students, such as Gardner’s son, and students with disabilities were referred to law enforcement at nearly twice their share of the overall student population.

Schools in some states are far more likely than others to refer students to law enforcement, regardless of their race and disability status. New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin schools did so at rates at least twice the national average. The repercussions ripple through communities in urban, suburban and rural areas alike.

Lancaster County Public Schools, a three-school district in remote eastern Virginia, had a referral rate 17 times the national average. In Philadelphia, one of the nation’s 20 largest school districts, the referral rate for all students was seven times the national average.

Thirty-one states, as well as the District of Columbia, referred Black students to law enforcement at more than twice the rate of white students, the Public Integrity analysis found.

These sharp disparities come despite years of mounting pressure on schools to stop policing kids.


In 2017, a national study at the University of California, Irvine, found that on-campus arrest rates for children younger than 15 increased in areas where the federal government made grant money available in 1999 for school resource officers – a response to the mass shooting at Columbine High School. The funding was available whether a district struggled with crime or not, which helped researchers tease out the impact.

Nationwide, roughly a quarter of law enforcement referrals lead to arrests, federal data shows. Students may be issued citations that require them to appear before judges or other juvenile court system officials. The federal data doesn’t specify what the referral was for, nor the result.


The roots of school policing reach back to 1948, when Los Angeles formed a security unit that grew into a full-fledged school-based law enforcement agency. In the 1950s, Flint, Michigan, posted officers borrowed from city ranks in schools to serve as “liaisons” in an anti-crime strategy. School shootings led to an expansion of this policing. “Zero tolerance” for weapons morphed into crackdowns on kids’ behavior.

From 2006 to 2018, the share of schools reporting the presence of at least one security officer on site at least once a week grew from 42% to 61%. The higher the enrollment and proportion of children eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, the more likely schools are to have security, according to a report in 2020 from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.

Federal funds remain available to schools that want to hire police. Because of the specter of school shootings, many parents, staff and children like to know an armed officer is on site. The University of California, Irvine, study found that principals in schools with more officers reported lower rates of criminal incidents. With that decline came an increased likelihood that children accused of disruptive behavior would come into contact with someone in the criminal justice system rather than a principal or dean of students.

Increasing outcry and concerns that children of color are targeted have prompted some districts to remove police from schools. The trend quickened after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man, in 2020.

Some states, Virginia most notably, have taken steps to slash referrals of children to law enforcement for minor incidents.

A Center for Public Integrity investigation in 2015 identified Virginia as the top state for referrals in the 2011-12 school year. The commonwealth’s rate of about 16 referrals per 1,000 students was nearly three times the national rate. The investigation revealed that Virginia middle school students, some with disabilities, were arrested and charged with crimes such as felony assault on police and obstruction of justice.

In 2020, after years of adopting and rejecting multiple changes, legislators approved a bill making Virginia the first state to prohibit police from charging students with disorderly conduct at school or school-sponsored events. Legislators removed language from the state code that educators said contributed to driving up referrals because it obliged them to report any potential crime, including a possible misdemeanor.


Research shows that those early interactions can have lasting effects. In 2020, a Tulane University and University of Washington study tracking Seattle Public Schools students found lingering effects from middle school interactions with police.

“Black respondents who experience contact with the police by eighth grade have 11 times greater odds of being arrested when they are 20 years old than their white counterparts,” researchers found.


For years, civil and disability rights advocates have pressed school boards and state lawmakers to get police officers off campuses, arguing that they often posed risks to students they were hired to serve.

“Cops are trained to be cops,” said Marilyn Mahusky, staff attorney for the Disability Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid. “Consistent with their training, they demand that the behavior stop, and if it doesn’t, you’re charged, you’re arrested.”


Though the legislative push in Vermont failed, dozens of school districts across the country canceled their contracts with police departments or cut their policing budgets, some after identifying disparities in referrals and arrests.

School systems in Minneapolis; Oakland, California; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle ended their agreements with law enforcement agencies. Two of the nation’s largest districts, Chicago and Los Angeles, slashed their budgets, the former by half and the latter by almost a third.

Change also came to Des Moines, Iowa, where the school board ended an agreement of at least two decades with the city police department last winter.

During the 2017-18 school year, federal data shows Black students represented 42% of all law enforcement referrals in the district, more than twice their share of the student population.


The pattern repeats across Iowa, where Black students were referred to law enforcement at five times the rate of white students. Students with disabilities were referred at twice the rate of the overall student population.


In 2014, during the Obama administration, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice issued joint guidance aimed at ensuring that Black and Latino students were not unfairly disciplined in school.

The Trump administration rescinded the guidance, arguing that it made schools reluctant to discipline students for unruly or violent behavior because they feared federal discrimination investigations.

In announcing the decision to roll it back in December 2018, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos cited concerns about “school environments where discipline decisions were based on a student’s race” and maintained that districts should make the final call on student discipline decisions.

During the Obama administration, referral rates for students with disabilities and Black, Hispanic and white students all dropped, the Public Integrity analysis shows.

It’s too soon to know whether racial disparities in school discipline increased or decreased during the Trump administration because the 2017-18 data is the latest available.

In May, 23 state attorneys general wrote to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking them to reissue and strengthen the Obama-era guidance. Twelve Democratic U.S. senators signed a letter requesting similar action.

Catherine Lhamon, who served as assistant secretary for civil rights during the Obama administration, is poised to return to the role. During her confirmation hearing in July, Lhamon said she would push to reinstate the discipline guidance.


A diversion program launched six years ago has reduced the number of arrests in schools by 84%, according to the district. In 2014, the district directed school officers to stop responding to internal calls related to minor student offenses such as insubordination.


And the changes in Philadelphia didn’t stop the racial disparities in law enforcement referrals, the 2017-18 data shows.

About half of district students are Black. Yet Black students were nearly three-quarters of those referred to law enforcement in Philadelphia during that school year.