Front End Criminal Justice Reform: Students Need Counselors, Not Cops

May 9, 2019

Image of Students in a hallway

Young people are, and always have been, at the forefront of movements to make lasting change here in the US and around the world. But changing the world isn’t easy, especially when students are already dealing with so many pressures at home, in their communities, and at school. 

As America’s spending on prisons has begun to outpace its spending on schools, students have increasingly found themselves without the mental-health resources they need. Rather than invest in teachers and counselors, many school districts are instead spending scarce funds on hiring police to patrol their schools. These officers have not been trained to deal with the challenges young people are facing. 

Our students deserve better. We’re working with our partner, Advancement Project National Office in Miami, the fifth largest school district in the US, to make changes to the system that we hope will soon take hold throughout the country.


Why Students Need Help

Students bring all their experiences, good and bad, to school with them every day. Teachers, counselors and, more and more often, untrained police have become the default first responders for kids in crisis. And crisis, sadly, is exactly the right word. A new report from Advancement Project, provides some stark numbers:

  • 1.6 million students attend school with school police but not a school counselor.
  • Students of color are more likely to attend schools that employ school police officers, but no school counselors.
  • Black students are three times more likely to attend a school with more security staff than mental health personnel.

Data suggests that 1 in 5 young people will develop mental health difficulties and 1 in 10 may need support from school to deal with them. Left untreated, these issues have a huge impact on day to day life and are the reason that more than half of those students eventually drop out.


So, Where Are the Counselors?

The good news is that we know exactly what will help: hiring more counselors. There’s a lot of evidence that counselors, in addressing the root of students’ behavioral issues, do an enormous amount of good. Schools with counselors see a reduction of disciplinary incidents and an overall decline in misbehavior. 

Sounds to us like a strong argument in favor of making sure all schools have enough counselors on staff! But, that definitely isn’t the case. At all.

  • 1.6 million students are in schools with police but no counselors
  • 3 million students are in schools with police but no nurses
  • 6 million students are in schools with police but no school psychologists
  • 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers
  • 14 million students are in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker


After Columbine

After the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, what was then the worst school shooting in US history, millions and millions of dollars were spent nationwide to create fortress-like schools and hire thousands of police officers to guard them. 

Twenty years and multiple school shootings later, can we say this approach has worked? It’s understandable that administrators and teachers wanted to do something, anything, to keep kids safe. But the truth is that there’s simply no evidence that having police in schools does that—or, for that matter, improves student mental health or educational outcomes. 

On the other hand, there is research suggesting that all this emphasis on law enforcement and security in our schools has made children feel less safe, created a less welcoming environment for students and parents, and increased discipline rates.


Racial Disparities

We want to talk about that last part, because while police have not been trained to be counselors, they have definitely been trained to do the things that police do: detain and arrest people. In schools with police officers on patrol, behavioral issues that previously would have been handled by teachers or staff in the school often escalate, resulting in interrogations, handcuffs, and arrest. And while many districts all over the country have placed police in schools, a closer look reveals the racial bias that makes this issue even more problematic. 

As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, Black students are punished far more severely and referred to law enforcement far more often than white students for the exact same infractions. It’s also true that Black students are more likely than white students to attend a school that employs police officers. Finally, it’s not surprising that all this leads to more Black students at every grade level being forced into the school-to-prison pipeline—even Black kindergarteners are being taken away in handcuffs.


What’s Going on in Miami

Miami is one of the largest school districts in the country, and our partner, Advancement Project National Office, has been working with local groups and Miami students themselves to reform the district’s policies and priorities regarding school police. A report they issued in 2017 with Power U let students take the lead in describing how overpolicing has left them feeling unsafe and unsupported in their own schools. 

We stand with the Miami activists who are demanding that the school board take millions of dollars meant for spending on police and instead invest it in things like more mental-health counselors, an increase in teachers’ pay, and more youth programming. If we can succeed here, it would set a huge precedent, one that will lead to changes everywhere.

Our students need counselors, not cops. They need support, not arrest records. Join us and help change the lives of millions of students in Miami and all across America.