California Decision Aims to End Aggressive Policing in Schools

And it offers a blueprint for reforming other districts that suffer from overpolicing.

In Stockton, California, school police, referred to as “school resource officers,” have arrested more than 34,000 students since 1991. 1,600 of these kids were under 10 years old. 

Photo by Education Images/Getty Images

Stockton, California’s Unified School District has been criminalizing students under the premise of protecting them. Since 1991, school police, referred to as “school resource officers,” have arrested more than 34,000 students, including 1,600 under 10 years old.

That may now be changing, with a recent court decision requiring the district to radically reform its policing policies and to provide a model that other districts can follow.

A March 2015 analysis of state crime statistics by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice (my employer) revealed that in a district with around 40,000 students—94 percent of whom are people of color—Stockton’s school officers arrested more than 1,800 students in 2012 on criminal charges. That included 182 students who were 9 or younger, a rate 37 times higher than all other law enforcement agencies in California.

In November 2015, the California Department of Justice’s Bureau of Children’s Justice, newly created by then-Attorney General Kamala Harris, launched an investigation. The Bureau contacted the district to determine why their “arrest rates were out of control.”

Stockton school officials and police pushed back hard. They lambasted the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice report as “irresponsibly inaccurate” and the whole issue a “misunderstanding.”

Those denials turned out to be false. The Bureau’s three-year investigation revealed widespread abuses in the Stockton schools, which included use of excessive force, unconstitutional and “random and suspicionless” search and seizure procedures using dogs and pat-downs, and frequent arrests targeting even the youngest students. The procedures often resulted in students being treated like criminals for misconduct typical of schoolchildren, especially those with disabilities.

It showed the district had turned thousands of minor student misbehaviors, commonplace in any school district, into criminal offenses, disproportionately affecting African American, Latino, and disabled students. In many cases, overreactions by undertrained officers created the escalation that led to student arrest.

“They called the cops on my [first-grader] son” three times for playing too long at recess, Glenda Sanchez, one of the parents who protested school policies, told KXTV-TV in Sacramento.

Another parent, Ronnica Gaines, said her kindergartener suffered crying spells and would be singled out for discipline. “It was just a horrible experience,” she said.

In one case, a 5-year-old boy was handcuffed and arrested after he lashed out at a school officer during a meeting at school. The boy had a diagnosis with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the story was picked up by news outlets around the world.

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The final judgment issued in Sacramento’s Superior Court in January between current Attorney General Xavier Becerra and the Stockton schools was unprecedented in strength and scope. The 26-page final judgment reads more like a detailed school policy document than a general court order—a blueprint for reforming other districts that suffer from overpolicing.

The judgment lays down standards on use of force, diversion and mental health referrals, written protocols, complaint procedures, and public reporting. It requires Stockton schools to end officer arrests of students for a long list of disciplinary issues that don’t constitute “a major threat to school safety.” It sets up a system that delineates offenses and establishes a process of discipline based on the seriousness of the student’s behavior.

It requires widely expanded staff and administrator training, including compliance with rights under the Constitution, Civil Rights Act, and Americans with Disabilities Act. It requires hiring a “positive school climate director” and a disability specialist to enforce a list of disabled-student rights.

Also important, the district will be required to provide a list of arrested students so that their criminal records can be expunged. Reforms would be supervised by a third-party monitor, a community advisory committee, the attorney general, and the court.

As school security and policing has ballooned into a multibillion-dollar industry across the U.S., the origin of Stockton’s resource officer program offers striking lessons. The Stockton school settlement came five days after the 30th anniversary of the Cleveland Elementary School shooting.

That was Jan. 17, 1989, when a 34-year-old White gunman who expressed hatred of Asian immigrants set his van on fire and entered the playground of his old Stockton elementary school, whose student composition had become mainly Southeast Asian refugee children. He used a semi-automatic AK-47 assault rifle and Taurus pistol to shoot 38 people, killing six of them.

The grounds and halls of America’s 70,000 schools are safer from gun violence than is most of the general population of Western Europe.

The massacre led to California’s assault weapons ban. It also drove Stockton school officials, in a climate of shock and fear, to employ a new cadre of armed school resource officers intended to protect campuses from intruders.

Instead, these officers quickly turned to criminalizing the district’s students, arresting nearly 1,000 children and teenagers in their first year and escalating to over 2,000 annually in subsequent years. In spite of that trend, National Public Radio in 2013 ran a story sympathetic to school police, “How to Be the Good Guy With a Gun at School,” which portrayed Stockton officers as “mentors” making schools safer.

While Stockton’s early experiment in armed policing of schools stemmed from genuine confusion over how to respond to a real shooting, today’s push is based on little evidence of either the danger or the effectiveness of officers in preventing it.

School shootings, though tragic, are rare. In fact, in a country where gun killings in homes and streets remain an epidemic, the grounds and halls of America’s 70,000 schools are safer from gun violence than is most of the general population of Western Europe.

Instead, fears that every school is at dire risk of a shooting is driving demands for arming teachers and citizens to patrol schools alongside police officers. In such a climate, school resource officers painted as “mentors” may seem a reasonable middle ground.

However, in practice, school resource officers are “bullies in blue,” the American Civil Liberties Union charged in a multistate analysis. The ACLU continued: “Under the auspices of protecting children … the scrutiny and authority of law enforcement are turned upon schoolchildren themselves.” In the aftermath of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, 2018, a federal judge ruled that school officers are not even legally obligated to protect students.

That’s why last month’s Stockton settlement is a major milestone. While under state investigation, Stockton school arrests dropped by 75 percent through 2017—although the arrest rate is still far higher than schools elsewhere. The impact of the settlement, new school leadership, and community and state monitoring will be tested as newer figures emerge.

The larger reality is that, as crime and violence involving young people plummet across the country, some jurisdictions have reacted by intensifying policing of the smaller numbers of youth who come to the attention of authorities. Misrepresenting schools as so violent and students as so dangerous and endangered that severe reactions, including hallway police forces, are required also contributes to the criminalization of students who don’t “fit in.” Justice reformers face new challenges, and California’s forceful response to Stockton’s excesses offers new remedies.