by David Safier
At the same time high profile killings of unarmed black men by police officers are making national news and bringing thousands of people into the streets to protest, TUSD is introducing police officers into some of its schools. When you combine people's justifiable concerns that too many police are arrest- and trigger-happy with the introduction of officers into Tucson schools with a high minority population, it's inevitable there will be concerns. And it's the job of TUSD and the Tucson Police Department to address and deal with the concerns directly.
Ideally, officers in the school should be community policing at its finest, bringing police into the halls and the classrooms to increase dialogue and understanding between young people and police at the same time the schools become safer places for students and staff. But officers in the schools can also result in more juveniles being brought into the criminal justice system, which can lead to all kinds of negative, life-altering consequences for the young people involved, and can give students and other community members another reason to fear and distrust police.
There are two positive aspects of the way police officers are being introduced. First, TUSD wisely refused to station police officers in its schools if they were allowed to ask students about their immigration status. Only after the agreement with the city read, “School Resource Officers shall refrain from asking about immigration status,” was the officers' presence OK'd.
Second, the legal agreement between TUSD and the City of Tucson on the use of police officers in the schools looks like a good document to my untrained eye. Attached to the agreement is the Arizona Department of Education's School Safety Program Guidance Manual which begins by saying the purpose of the program is "to contribute to safe school environments that are conducive to teaching and learning." It discusses the training officers go through and their educational duties in the schools. The emphasis of the manual is on safety and education, not arrest and incarceration.
But with a police officer easily at hand, it becomes easier to turn situations which should be handled in house into trips down to the police station. When there's a law enforcement hammer in the school, every infraction of the rules can look like a nail. The officers as well as the school administration need to be aware of the temptation to criminalize bad behavior by students which should be dealt with by in-school reprimands and, if necessary, disciplinary action. The only time the criminal justice system should be involved is when a situation is serious enough that a school without an on-campus officer would call in the police to deal with the problem.
Arrests in TUSD schools should not increase because of police presence. If anything, arrests of school-aged youth in and out of school should go down because the law enforcement officers can help deal with problems before they escalate, and because students develop a greater trust of and respect for the officers. One would hope that the officers would develop greater trust and understanding of the students as well, through dealing with them as people, not just bad actors.
I hope TUSD and the TPD are aware of the potential for problems which can and will arise from the presence of police in the schools. It's a delicate situation, especially right now with the nation as sensitized as it is by the highly publicized recent killings of unarmed boys and men by police officers. I hope both agencies are planning this carefully and reaching out to the community to create understanding and mutually acceptable guidelines.