© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
KWMU FM in the Metro Region is currently off the air due to a power issue. Listen via our live streams at stlpr.org or the STLPR app.

ACLU Wants Police Officers Out Of Missouri's Schools

Susanna Lohr | St. Louis Public Radio
The purpose and cost of police in schools is being debated. The ACLU of Missouri wants districts to cancel their contracts with local departments for school resource officers.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri is calling on the state’s school districts to follow a national example and remove police officers from schools.

The ACLU has circulated a letter to nine school administrators so far, mostly in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, arguing the money spent on school resource officers, often referred to as SROs, should instead go to the social-emotional needs of children, such as by hiring more social workers and counselors.

“At this moment when we are rethinking budgets and deeply questioning the role police should play in our society, we must understand that SROs are not an appropriate use of funding,” the letter says.

The ACLU and other advocates have lobbied for years to break what’s referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. It refers to a body of research that shows strict disciplinary practices in the schools, which have been shown to target males of color, in particular, set those children up for negative interactions with law enforcement and incarceration later on. Black students in Missouri are four and a half times more likely to be suspended than white students, according to a 2017 report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.

“There is no evidence that increased police presence in schools improves school safety,” said Luz María Henríquez, executive director of ACLU Missouri. “And in fact, the research shows police presence in schools negatively impacts school climate (and) fuels distrust and anxiety among students.”

The Denver and Minneapolis school boards have voted to end contracts with local police departments in the weeks following the death of George Floyd while in the custody of a Minneapolis police officer. The school system in Portland, Oregon, is considering doing the same thing.

But a national organization representing those officers says it’s the wrong move.

“We are, of course, dismayed to learn that some school systems have recently discontinued or considered discontinuing their SRO programs,” said Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

The majority of urban and suburban school systems have police officers who spend at least part of the day at a school. They’re seen by backers as added protection against violence and school shootings, and also a way to build community relations.

But there also have been incidents of school resource officers being called to handle minor disciplinary problems that result in a student being forcibly detained. 

“Well-implemented programs can help communities bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth, building positive relationships that can last lifetimes, while helping to protect schools from a wide variety of threats. In addition, they can do so while reducing referrals of students to the juvenile justice system,” Canady said.

This is not the first time the need and role of school resource officers has been debated. A national conversation about the need for more armed protection in school hallways was sparked by the February 2018 school massacre in Parkland, Florida.

Meanwhile, there is only one guidance counselor for every 347 Missouri schoolchildren, according to the American School Counselors Association. That ratio widens for social workers and pediatric psychologists.

Jennings School District will not be canceling its contract with the St. Louis County Police Department, Superintendent Art McCoy said.

Jennings, a small district just north of St. Louis that’s predominantly African American, requires its school resource officers to also be black, go through cultural competency training and participate in mentoring programming, McCoy said.

“The real goal is to redistribute the power,” he said. “We’ve done that.” 

Jennings High School also has junior law enforcement career program. McCoy said he’s talked in recent weeks with students in that program as well as ones who are not.

“They know that they can’t depend on police officers like they should because they won’t necessarily be loved and protected by every cop,” McCoy said. “So they appreciate the conversation being done in Jennings, early.”

Hickman Mills School District, located on the south side of Kansas City, contracts with the Kansas City Police Department. Its administration has endorsed its use of SROs.

“The officers have built positive relationships with our students,” a spokeswoman said. “As with most things, we will regularly evaluate having officers in schools to make sure we are meeting the needs of our students.”

Along with Jennings and Hickman Mills, the ACLU sent letters to the school districts of Ritenour, University City, Ferguson-Florissant, Hazelwood, Columbia, Raytown and Springfield.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.