Defund Police in Schools and Expand School-Based Mental Health

By Whitney Bunts 

For centuries, police systems have operated under the mantra of “protect and serve.” Yet people in Black communities often feel they need to be protected from the police. As police forces have evolved from their roles as slave patrol units, they have brutalized Black people—using excessive force, making faulty arrests, and murdering them without any consequences. In the United States, Black people are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white people—equating to 1 in 1,000 Black people dying at the hands of police. Among the latest examples of this was the lynching (or public execution under the pretense of serving justice) of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer. Since the video of George Floyd’s murder, protests have set off a series of responses nationwide. In Minneapolis, this included a decision by the public school district to end its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. The Advancement Project and others have always advocated for removing police presence from schools. Now, localities are adopting police-free schools in response to calls to divest resources from law enforcement, invest in the wellbeing of communities, and protect young people. 

More than 4 in 10 U.S. schools (43 percent) have school resource officers (law enforcement officers whose primary duty is to protect schools—maintaining a safe and secure environment). This high saturation of law enforcement means that 14 million students walk alongside police officers in school hallways. In most cases, school resources officers are employed by local police departments and might also patrol in and ravage communities of color —leaving Black students feeling unsafe and unprotected. Police officers in schools lead students to feel an increased sense of anxiety, alienation, mistrust between peers and to form adversarial relationships with school officials. As a Black woman who once was a student and walked alongside police officers in school, I know firsthand that this is true. 

Police create a hostile learning environment leading to less student engagement and a higher dropout rate. School resource officers are a crucial component of the “school to prison pipeline,” which funnels Black and Brown youth into the justice system. For instance, Black students make up 15 percent of the school population, but 31 percent of the students arrested or referred to law enforcement. School arrests are damaging to students’ school career and mental health and to the wellbeing of their communities and families. Overall, school resource officers are causing more harm than good and are not equipped to deal with students’ social-emotional needs. As school systems halt their contracts with police departments, they have an opportunity to invest those dollars in existing solutions that provide a more positive school climate.

School-based mental health (SBMH) services offered by trained counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses can meet students’ needs in schools. The supports they provide offer students with a safer learning environment and access to resources not found in their communities. For example, studies show that youth are 21 times more likely to visit school-based health centers for mental health than community mental health centers.  However,  there aren’t enough SBMH providers in schools to support young people. Here are the current averages:

In addition to increasing the number of mental health providers in schools, district leaders can build school-wide capacity to meet students’ mental health needs. This includes training school personnel in core competencies for mental health such as trauma-informed care. It also means introducing preventative interventions that support students’ social emotional development and coping skills. Moreover, schools must ensure that mental health supports have a racial equity lens — that accounts for one’s racial and ethnic background when thinking about solutions, outcomes, and treatments.

When schools provide quality mental health supports by personnel who are equipped to engage youth, students have improved attendance and graduation rates, are more career ready, and feel safer at school. Additionally, SBMH improves health outcomes and allows youth to be youth and not feel criminalized. That’s why removing police from schools is both necessary and smart.

In addition to defunding police in schools, state and local school districts, school boards, and the U.S. Department of Education must make radical investments in restorative and transformative healing practices. Such investments put community back into our schools. Because, in the end, WE KEEP US SAFE.