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Column: Police in schools don’t make them safer

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 5/7/2021 10:10:06 PM
Modified: 5/7/2021 10:10:03 PM

On Wednesday, the Lebanon School Board will finally vote on the matter of continuing to include a school resource officer in the budget. It will be fascinating to see how the controversy is resolved.

Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon and staff writer Tim Camerato have done a fine job framing the issue. To say the community is divided is an understatement. The vote on the nonbinding referendum was inconclusive (1,011 to 1,006) and, according to reports, letters and other public comment has been similarly divided.

As head of a New York independent school for 19 years and as a frequent visitor and “principal for a day” at a number of public schools in Harlem and the Bronx, I have relevant experience.

First let me stipulate that Lebanon’s current school resource officer, Lebanon Police Officer Gregory Parthum, has by all accounts a good reputation — but that is quite beside the point.

The history and evidence are clear.

Policing in schools is a relatively new phenomenon, although some history goes back to the 1940s and ’50s. There was an understandable, albeit knee-jerk, surge following the mass murders in Columbine and Sandy Hook. Frequently ignored is that Columbine happened despite armed police in the school.

Like most other schools, the one I led had anxious parents demanding armed security in the wake of these tragedies. I resisted then, and I would resist now, because there is no evidence that armed personnel have protected any school from that kind of unthinkable assault. If an angry, crazed person wants to massacre children at any school, an armed guard with a handgun is not much help, police officer or not. I pointed out that our students were vulnerable to a madman at arrival time, dismissal time, recess and sports events. The only protection against such tragedy is to have fewer madmen and fewer or no weapons of mass mayhem in our communities.

The more important history is to look at broader social attitudes toward race and crime.

The 1994 Crime Bill was a major factor in the accelerating mass incarceration of Black men. Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral reign of terror in New York City began at the same time, ushering in the “broken windows” approach to policing; arrest thousands of Black men for petty offenses and crime will be reduced.

And so it was, with enormous collateral damage to communities of color. At my school, where 32% of high school students were of color, the impact was unambiguous: Every student of color reported being hassled, stopped and frisked, or followed in stores by city police officers. Not so for white students, of course.

The presence of police in nearly half of American schools is a sad and unnecessary extension of the attitudes and policies of that era. The results should surprise no one. Arrests of students — disproportionately students of color — for minor offenses increased. Despite assertions by Lebanon residents or the apparently pleasant demeanor of Officer Parthum, Lebanon’s students of color are fully justified in their claims that an armed police officer is a source of real discomfort.

Former Lebanon student Joshua Flanders spoke up in support of the police presence: “The officer ‘was there for me when others were not,’ including educators who openly pondered whether Flanders would wind up serving prison time as an adult, he told the School Board.” But that is a glaring indictment of those educators, not a justification for police presence.

Many in Lebanon and elsewhere assert that a school resource officer is a good way to de-stigmatize police at a time when public-police relations are fraught. De-stigmatization may be a salutary goal, but is not schools’ responsibility. If public attitudes toward police are to change, it must come from a change in police attitudes toward the public.

And everywhere in America, police attitudes toward the public — specifically the Black public — are in desperate need of change. That is as true in the Upper Valley as it is in Harlem.

I suppose the nonbinding vote was a nod to public accountability, but the School Board is elected to serve the best interests of the students, not to bend in whatever direction the public breeze blows.

There is no evidence that having a police officer in a school makes it safer. There is abundant evidence that having a police officer in a school changes the climate, especially for students of color.

Former teacher Lindsay Dearborn deserves the last word: “I know in my bones that when we invite law enforcement into schools for whatever reason and one child, any child, feels unsafe, threatened, feels uncomfortable or is otherwise harmed, then we are all harmed,” she told the Valley News. “It means our school isn’t working.”

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He is the author of First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk (Garn Press). Email him at stevehutnelson@gmail.com.




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