"Defund the (School) Police"?: Bringing Data to Key School-to-Prison Pipeline Claims
58 Pages Posted: 30 Apr 2020 Last revised: 19 May 2021
Date Written: May 19, 2021
Nationwide calls to “Defund the Police,” largely attributable to the resurgent Black Lives Matter demonstrations, have motivated derivative calls for public school districts to consider “defunding” (or modifying) school resource officer (“SRO/police”) programs. To be sure, a school’s SRO/police presence—and the size of that presence—may influence the school’s student discipline reporting policies and practices. How schools report student discipline and whether it involves referrals to law enforcement agencies matter, particularly as they may fuel a growing “school-to-prison pipeline.” The school-to-prison pipeline research literature features two general claims that frame debates about changes in how public schools approach student discipline and the growing number of calls for schools to defund SRO/police programs. One claim is that public schools’ increasingly “legalized” approach toward student discipline increases the likelihood that students will be thrust into the criminal justice system. A second distributional claim is that these adverse consequences disproportionately involve students of color, boys, students from low-income households, and other vulnerable student sub-groups. Both claims include important legal and policy dimensions as students’ adverse interactions with law enforcement agencies typically impose negative consequences on students and their futures. We subject both claims to the nation’s leading data set on public school crime and safety, supplemented by data on state-level mandatory reporting requirements and district-level per pupil spending, and explore three distinct analytic approaches in an effort to assess the independent influence of a school’s SRO/police presence on that school’s student discipline reporting behavior. Results from our analyses, largely robust to various analytical approaches, provide mixed support for the two claims. We find that a school’s SRO/police presence corresponds with an increased likelihood that the school will report student incidents to law enforcement agencies. However, we do not find support in the school-level data for the distributional claim.
Keywords: education, schools, criminal justice, juvenile justice, empirical
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