There are two basic facts to know about the U.S. criminal justice system and who is brought into it. First, behaviors that can be considered crimes under criminal law happen constantly within every neighborhood in the country. Second, those behaviors only become crimes if law enforcement officers are there to see them, or are alerted to them, and decide to treat them as crimes. In other words, crime is much less about behavior than it is about policy choices. And in the U.S., those choices have led to a heavy concentration of law enforcement within Black and Brown communities, ensuring that behaviors there are criminalized far more easily than they are in predominantly white communities.
This is also true in our schools. Indeed, Black and Brown K-12 students in the U.S. may be the most heavily policed people in the world. Think about it: many of our children spend seven hours a day, 180 days per year, without ever being further than 150 yards from a police officer.
Thus, our schools, which should be joyous places for learning and exploration, too often serve as a feeder system for our jails and prisons.
For example, over the past six years, there have been at least 38,295 police tickets and arrests of K-12 students within Colorado public schools, the vast majority of which were for developmentally appropriate and low-level behaviors. Consistent with historical inequities, the majority of these tickets, arrests, and suspensions were of students of color. For example, Black students were introduced to the criminal and juvenile justice systems directly by their schools at three times the rate of their white peers. Additionally, 10,692 (28%) of the tickets and arrests were students aged 13 and younger, and 1,739 were of students aged 11 and younger. Plus, national research has shown that students with disabilities and queer students are also more likely to be thrust into the school-to-prison pipeline.
These incidents demand that we reassess our approach to school safety. Each one of our children deserves a healthy, nurturing, and equitable learning environment. They deserve to feel welcomed, valued, and respected in their schools. They deserve schools that are centered around meeting the full range of their development needs. What all of these goals share in common is that they are unreachable when our children also face a high likelihood of being arrested or ticketed in their schools on a daily basis.
These practices have been deeply harmful to students, families, and entire communities across the state and are nearly always unnecessary to protect school safety. True school safety comes not from criminalizing youth but from healthy, well-resourced, and equitable learning environments that employ the best available strategies to both prevent and respond to student misconduct. Schools that are authentically safe prioritize student well-being by ensuring access to social and emotional supports, mental and behavioral health services, trauma-informed services, and other wraparound supports to meet students’ needs. When there are disciplinary incidents, they use intervention strategies that support student learning and positive school climates, such as restorative practices. They are also intentional about interrupting racial biases and addressing disproportionality.
Nevertheless, far too many Colorado students attend schools that are not equipped to meet their developmental needs or promote racial equity. For example, in 2017-18, 120,082 K-12 students in Colorado attended schools with police but no school psychologist, 148,064 attended schools with police but no school social worker, and 210,073 Colorado attended schools with police but no school nurse.
It is time for us to address the fact that our schools have become far too reliant on law enforcement to address issues that should be handled by school personnel. Rather than aggressively policing our students, we should be creating systems of care for them. Passing SB-182, a bill being considered in the General Assembly which seeks to limit the most severe disciplinary measures to when they are truly appropriate, would be a significant step in that direction. Through that and other efforts at the state and local levels, we can finally dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and create the authentically safe and supportive schools our children deserve.
Elsa Bañuelos is the Executive Director of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos and the mother of a 3rd-grader in Denver Public Schools.