School Cops

Students from Sheepshead Bay High School at “My School has Rhythm Not Violence” rap contest auditions, presented by the NYPD School Safety Community Outreach Unit. Image Courtesy of Brooklyn Daily.

Students from Sheepshead Bay High School at “My School has Rhythm Not Violence” rap contest auditions, presented by the NYPD School Safety Community Outreach Unit. Image Courtesy of Brooklyn Daily.

Which came first, school cops or school violence? It can be argued that school cops are a response to student violence. However, it can also be argued that student violence is a result of school cop presence. This debate is a very controversial issue at the moment and is extremely relevant to our schools today.

One of the earliest records of a school shooting took place in the 1760’s in Pennsylvania. A group of four Native Americans shot their teacher and nine other classmates in their small schoolhouse. Only three children survived. Fast forward to the later-half of the 19th century. From 1900-1980, there were around 130 school shootings. However, during the 1980’s, Zero Tolerance policies were applied to student’s behavior after heightened concern over youth violence. The “school safety” division of many large cities’ police departments began to grow, creating a criminalization of student conduct. Since 1980-2014, there have been around 230 school shootings. This number has almost doubled from 130 shootings, but in less than half the time.


Born and raised in New York City and having gone to public school all my life, I had some interactions with school cops. A majority of my experiences had been friendly. We knew all of the cops by name, and spent most of the time chatting about weekend plans and if they would be at the sports game that evening. I was surprised to learn that the New York Police Department had taken over public school security in 1998. They have 5,000 officers in the NYPD’s “School Safety Division,” which is larger than all but three other cities’ entire police forces. In 2012, 95% of the 882 arrests made by the NYPD School Safety Division were Black or Latin@ students. In addition, 63% of the summonses were for “disorderly conduct,” a vague term to describe someone with the intent to cause public annoyance or recklessly creating a risk.

While this number may seem absurd, NYC is actually a prime example of the National Rifle Association’s push to place armed officers in schools nationwide. This came as a response to the Newtown, Connecticut massacre, but not without criticism. Numerous studies demonstrate that instead of protecting students, police have a negative affect on the school environment, routinely criminalizing and victimizing them. What were once standard student misbehavior, which would require a trip to the principles office and detention, is now leading to Class C misdemeanors and a court visit for thousands of Texas students and their families every year. Additionally, a 2009 study found that the rate of students arrested for disorderly conduct was 100% higher at schools with police on-campus than at schools where the cops need to be called in to make an arrest. This fact suggests that school cops criminalize behavior that would most likely be better resolved without handcuffs.

It is quite clear that school cops overseeing todays youth is a sign of desperation. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois coined the term “school to prison pipeline.” The reality of public schools in America is that they resemble prisons, holding children captive and subjecting them to monitoring, asinine rules, zero tolerance and invasion of privacy. Essentially, treating students who have minor misbehavior in state schools as if they are lawbreakers can have serious consequences on those students. Removing them from the classroom and sending them on a path to prison. School cops act as an alternative to the other much-needed social services, which do not receive enough government funding. For example, in comparison to the 5,000 NYC “School Safety” officers, there are only 3,000 school counselors and 1,500 school social workers. Many are now urging legislators and the White House to focus on investing in proven positive and effective approaches to discipline, such as the Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports initiative, social and emotional learning, community intervention work and restorative justice.

In response to my earlier question, which came first, school cops or school violence, I think it is obvious that school cops did. The presence of school cops reinforces the criminalization of minors and creates a school to prison pipeline, causing irrevocable harm to our nation’s youth.

By Amanda Crabbe 

Nonprofit Management Degree Candidate at the New School for Public Engagement

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1 Comment

  1. Hanna

     /  February 10, 2015

    Amanda, I really appreciate this post. As an educator who has worked in schools with police officers, I’ve often felt torn about their presence. On the one hand, many of our safety officers have been incredibly kind, well-known members of the community my students lived in. A few of them even had their own kids in schools in our building. For my scholars, their overall presence was at best comforting and at worst like that of a stern but loveable aunt or uncle.

    For another co-located school in my building – a school that directly used police officers as a part of their discipline system – the presence of these officers felt more oppressive. In those interactions between student misbehavior and police presence, I felt troubled by the criminalization of what was more often that not typical (although admittedly frustrating and/or inappropriate) adolescent behavior.

    With that said, my experiences with cops in schools (or in particular as related to my own school) has been overwhelmingly positive. That’s not to say that I don’t wish that their presence wasn’t necessary.

    I think perhaps more detrimental to students than the everyday presence of known and recognizable school cops is the unknown, unannounced officer. The NYC DOE has a policy – one that I am loudly anti – of unannounced random scanning. This means that dozens (like upwards of 50) police officers can descend on a school one morning, take over it’s entryway, and require all students and their items to be scanned. (Imagine being a 5th grader – 11 years old – walking into your cafeteria to find 50 police officers, two metal detectors and 4 airport style X-ray machines.

    This happened at my school twice in the last two years. Imagine that trauma to our learning environment – our students – who typically are greeted at the front door of our school with a smile and a high five from their Principal and Deans — instead starting their day by being yelled at as they approach the school – told by police officers to remove their belts and step into the building.

    I do wish that we will one day take the steps to bring in more counselors and social workers into our schools and take away the cops. In the meantime, we have to figure out a way to put a stop to DOE’s Random Scanning policy. These interfaces between our kids and a nameless, absolute and often disrespectful power cannot be allowed to continue.

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