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COLUMN: Balancing Police Presence in Public Schools

OPINION: As New York City works to strip police in schools of almost all of their authority, Georgia lawmakers tried earlier this year to take discretion away from school administrators and streamline law enforcement in disciplinary procedures.
Jessica Szilagyi asks why we’re even trying to legislate how police behave in the first place.

The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of the author and not those of AllOnGeorga.

How much police presence is the right amount of police presence for public schools? Is there an approach that works? Is there a one-size-fits-most stencil? How do you legislate this type of thing when each community and school district is so different in makeup?

These are all the questions I had on the heels of learning of the decision by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to limit police influence in public schools, which will halt the practice of police arresting students for low-level offenses and focus more on more egregious crimes that happen off campus. The overhaul also removes police from the day-to-day tracking of students for things like tardiness, lying, and “talking loudly,” according to the Forbes article. 

The retraining of personnel, the changes for police,  plus the hiring of 85 mental health professionals will cost $16-21 million annually.

I think the idea is ridiculous.

Here in Georgia, a school safety bill was vetoed by Governor Kemp just last month and seemingly pushed Georgia in the direction of New York’s approach, circa 1998 – the era of Zero Tolerance.

Because of the language, the bill would have eliminated some of the discretion school administrators have when it comes to incidents (like possession of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, or scuffles in the hallway) and would require that the police become involved, pen reports, arrest the students, and essentially run of the number of students who graduate with criminal convictions instead of mere behavioral issues on a school record. 

I think this idea is ridiculous, too.

The problem, much like every other we are facing these days, is a pendulum that constantly swings to the extremes. 

I don’t have kids in schools, but I’m also not so far removed from my public education career that I’ve forgotten what it’s like. Kids, especially in middle and high school, are mischievous, disobedient, and often downright vapid. But few are hardened criminals. “Back in my day…” a scuffle amongst two boys in the hall led to in-school suspension. Getting caught with a joint in a backpack landed someone at home for a week for out-of-school suspension. Having alcohol at the school dance got you kicked out of the dance and a phone call to your parents. Kids were not arrested for the little things. Parents, teachers, and administrators partnered for prevention and punishment.

I recognize that the world is a much different place even a decade later. Kids are different, teachers are different, parents are different. But is it that way because we’ve had to adjust the environment to fit a changing people or have we changed as people to fit an already adjusted environment?

Much like I don’t support body searches of students upon arriving to school or practices that look more like prison than educational facilities, I don’t support the idea of criminalizing all acts – without exception – and creating a reference code for a kid’s criminal history because they made a stupid decision. Should they be held accountable for actions, even petty crimes? Absolutely. Should that involve handcuffs and probation? Absolutely not. As state legislatures have tried to codify these practices, law enforcement officials have, in some instances, attempted to overcompensate in an attempt to show ‘results’ – which isn’t how it used to be. 

I remember the great camaraderie we had with our school resource officer, especially in high school. My middle and high school days were in the early days of the “Zero Tolerance” roll out and not long after the Columbine shooting. The officer assigned to our diverse school of about 2,000 students was a friend, someone a number of students confided in, and, probably of most importance, a person who helped students right a wrong course before they were too far gone. Not to mention that interactions with our school resource officer were the only positive interactions with law enforcement some of my fellow students ever had – a testament to the type of person qualified to be a school resource officer. 

It was also less disruptive to the school day to have the resource officer already on premises handle a few troubled kids than it was to have the local agency send a few cars over with their lights on and a few unfamiliar faces.

So what has changed?

For starters, a number of things outside the realm of an environment of a public school have a direct impact – race relations in our country, media reporting of law enforcement, the politicization of policing, politics in general!! the neverending sequestering of people into identity groups. These irrefutable factors aren’t just conditions of an environment, but conditions that influence interactions with others on a daily basis.

Couple those matters with how unpopular it is to take the middle ground on an issue in 2019 and you are back to where we started: seeking a new balance for law enforcement in public schools.

These days, the National Center for Education Statistics says that 71% of public high schools have at least one armed law enforcement officer. Despite the obvious majority, having law enforcement in schools remains a contentious issue with inconsistent policies and approaches across districts, yet are somehow analyzed by the same comprehensive research. 

Advocates of reduced influence of law enforcement in education cite data like that in a study in Texas from 1999 to 2008 which attributes the decline in graduation rates to the increased police presence in school, but note in the argument “it’s not clear what explains these results.” The study does not take into account information about stress on the local economies, overall crime in an area, socioeconomic make-up, or anything else. Simply that more law enforcement were present in years that graduation rates decreased. 

A 2018 Harvard University study looking at 250,000 students aged 9 to 15 purported that the findings illustrated that increased presence of law enforcement caused a decline in test scores of African American males. The program assessed, however, was self proclaimed as “aggressive” and centered on “order-maintenance policing.” The study concedes a reduction of crime, but says the social impact of policing is ignored.

Both are a stark contrast from a study published in the Journal of Child & Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing by a Juvenile Court Judge in Clayton County, Ga which said that zero tolerance policies coupled with police presence in schools can lead to an uptick in graduation rates and reduction in delinquent behavior – if other things are present. Officer discretion, input from school administrators, police, the courts, mental health counselors, and…the community. 

But that begs one of the most important questions: Why does the community think we have law enforcement officers in schools in the first place? If some studies suggest it’s bad for kids to be around police in schools while other studies say it’s good and you merely call it a wash, what is the point of having them around?

If it’s to give parents “peace of mind” while they’re at work all day, we should pull all of the resource officers immediately.

If it’s to protect students at all costs in the event of a tragedy, as we saw in Parkland, that is certainly not a guarantee. 

If it’s to hold students accountable for things that happen off campus (looking at you, New York), that’s also wrong. We already have police forces in place for that. 

If it’s to balance the seesaw between equal parts authority and order with an even dose of community policing and mentoring, maybe we’re on the right track.

But everyone has to agree that that is the desired goal. 

The balance of policing in public schools won’t come from the lawmakers or the educators or even the police. By nature, each profession has a responsibility and a human inclination to protect the grip over ‘best practices’  that impact their duties. Only the expectations from the community can balance all three of those at once.

Jessica Szilagyi is a former Statewide Contributor for

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