Although President Joe Biden’s administration has begun to offer aid in uncertain times, the question remains: Who will protect and support marginalized communities? With numerous cases of police brutality in the past year alone, Black and Brown people are met with the harsh reality that those who have sworn to provide safety could be the very ones who threaten it. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in America are exposed to this reality from the very beginning, even as early as K-12 education.
Schools around the country have formed connections with their local police departments with hopes of providing safety and support for students. Berkeley High School (BHS) is one of many schools in California that have made this decision, forging a relationship with the Berkeley Police Department (BPD).
A School Resource Officer (SRO) from BPD is stationed at BHS during a normal pre-COVID-19 school day, visible to students during passing periods and at lunch. However, the precise purpose of the SRO is ambiguous for many students.
According to Brent Stephens, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) superintendent, the role of the SRO is a multilayered one. At first glance, many assume the purpose of a police officer on campus is to coordinate disciplinary action. However, the SRO rarely gets involved in cases of student misconduct. Investigating such reports usually falls to school administrators, who act independently from the police department in regards to student behavior.
It is only when a student has violated the law both on and off campus that the SRO intervenes, as an intermediary between the school and law enforcement. In such cases, the SRO interviews students, advises administrators, and files reports of criminal misconduct. “There’s a line between administrative investigation and response to misconduct, and what the SRO does,” emphasized Stephens.
However, the primary function of the SRO, according to the district, is to build a positive relationship between students and law enforcement. This relationship is meant to prevent crime.
At the end of the day, the SRO is the district’s strategy for stopping the school to prison pipeline. “Ultimately, [the SRO is] meant to divert potential arrests, so that young people are experiencing more supportive responses to their actions, as opposed to interacting with police and facing arrests for violations of the law,” said Stephens.
The Berkeley Police Department’s (BPD) vision is aligned with BUSD’s. Stephens explained, “[The BPD views] this position as a much needed buffer for young people between the average cop and students attending high school.”
However, activists across the country have raised the question of whether the SRO is the best way to support this goal. Some have voiced that police presence in high schools perpetuates the school to prison pipeline, instead of fighting it.
Lyndon Ward, a senior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS) and member of the Black Student Union (BSU), found the role of policing within schools to be complicated and contradictory. “[Police] presence can serve as the constant reminder that, at any moment, those who are sworn to protect you can be the very ones who harm you the most,” he said. “But it isn’t as simple as that. There, of course, is an acknowledgment that campus security and student safety are essential. However, there still remains a long and troubling history of policing in schools, which has brought harm and criminalization to students.”
“The very presence of police in schools, in and of itself, is part of the school to prison pipeline,” said Oscar Lopez, the Interim Director of the Education Advocacy Clinic at the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC). “Feeling like you’re being watched all the time, knowing that a little mistake can land you in the juvenile legal system — that is the school to prison pipeline.”
As a firm opponent of police in schools, Lopez noted that schools with police have been shown to have more suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, than schools of similar demographics without police. According to him, this indicates that police at schools actually do the exact opposite of what they are intended to – instead of lowering the number of run-ins with the law, school police increase it.
“What the data indicates is that having police in schools actually results in the overcriminalization of young people — especially Black and Brown students — for really minor offenses,” Lopez summarized. Lopez’s own experience defending school-aged clients as they navigate the juvenile justice system has made this clear for him.
Annie Tann, a senior in Academic Choice (AC), has noticed how police presence on campus has affected students of color. As a student enrolled in BHS’s Law and Social Justice class, Tann said, “Police presence has some unforeseen consequences – arrests, suspensions, expulsions; these consequences will inevitably fall on the students of color at BHS…. If BPD’s presence is to remain at BHS, these unintended consequences need to be taken into consideration.”
The BHS SRO carries a gun, amidst an environment where students and teachers are never armed. During a year when police shootings of unarmed Black Americans have been brought to the forefront of national anger and attention, an armed police officer on campus can create uncomfortable parallels to the uneven power dynamic between police and unarmed civilians of color.
However, Tann added, “That being said, police officers on campus can adequately handle crises like school shootings, bomb threats, conflict amongst students, etc.”
Tann’s point about police presence providing student safety is one that has been voiced as a main argument in favor of the SRO. In recent years, many students have felt the fear of experiencing a traumatic situation. Whether it is gun violence or sexual assault, or any situation where the perpetrator is a fellow student, police presence can be comforting for some.
Yet, Tann and Ward raised a key question: Should this protection be at the expense of Black and Brown students?
Aside from existing to foster a positive relationship between students and police, the SRO provides valuable student services. The SRO is a source of information to students, as well as someone who investigates cases of sexual harm. Proponents of the SRO voiced that the loss of the SRO would lead to students being denied these crucial resources.
However, Lopez pointed out that schools already have the frameworks to offer these services; police officers are not the only people capable of providing them. In fact, they can often be better offered by professionals who have dedicated their entire lives to their specific area of expertise. “What makes schools safer is restorative justice counselors, mental health coordinators, culture and climate ambassadors; people who have a very different type of training [from police] to address the needs of students,” said Lopez.
For the matter of fighting sexual harm at BHS, Lopez argued that Title IX counselors, therapists, and social workers with extensive training are more capable of supporting students. “Instead of focusing on the incentivization of good behavior, there should be a focus on creating more supportive and lasting relationships between the students and faculty,” Lyndon Ward agreed.
Funding is finite, so strengthening support services would involve paring down funds dedicated to school police, then diverting this money to better equip professionals working with mental health, restorative justice, and sexual harm cases. Lopez worked alongside the Black Organizing Project to entirely eliminate the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) police department. He suggested this outcome was also a possibility for BUSD if students, administrators, and city officials chose this path.
The current BPD officer at BHS is Geoffrey Mitchell, who has been the SRO for the past three years. Superintendent Stephens is confident that Officer Mitchell’s presence is beneficial to students. “I’ve been impressed by the BHS SRO’s commitment to young people and his background serving young people,” said Stephens.
Perhaps due to his work as a defense attorney and the negative client experiences it brings him into contact with, Lopez said that in his experience, the SRO’s presence has been harmful for students. “I can’t give too much detail [due to confidentiality], but I can tell you that there have been incidents at BHS… where young people feel really scared to speak up against the SRO. My clients have told me things that happened to them at school sites, and I tell them, ‘Do you want to report this?’ and they say, ‘No, I’m really scared they’ll retaliate.’ These stories go unreported all the time,” explained Lopez.
As the Superintendent, Stephens has seen both ups and downs. “I’ve witnessed experiences where the interaction between the SRO and students of color have been positive,” said Stephens. However, he explained, “I’ve also witnessed interactions… that have been remarkably negative and, no doubt, have had scarring impacts on students. So what I’ve come to view is that there is no one answer.”
Stephens has observed that the benefit of police on campus often depends on the circumstances, as well as the individual SRO him or herself.
Precisely because of this complexity, BUSD administrators and the BPD remain open to community input on the role of the SRO. “From the BPD, I do know they are supportive of this effort. They’ve been very cooperative with us about providing data on the interactions of the SRO and students,” said Stephens.
BHS is now diving into the process of reimagining the role of the SRO. In June of 2020, the Berkeley School Board passed a resolution calling for the formation of a steering committee. “The Board wanted to develop a thoughtful process to solicit a variety of perspectives about the values and the pitfalls of the SRO program, and asked that I work with other staff members to develop the steering committee,” said Stephens.
The committee itself is composed of diverse representatives, including high school administrators, teachers, students, and family members. There is also a designated role for a community member and a counselor.
Tasked with creating surveys and focus groups to collect community input, the committee will then turn that information into recommendations for the Board and the City. This work will continue throughout February and March.
As the process unfolds, it is crucial that those most affected by police presence on campus have a say. As Ward put it, “Everyone will have a different reaction to police presence, and that’s exactly why students are needed in this conversation. It is the very nuance and complexity of such an issue that requires students — particularly Black students — to be a part of the discussion.”
Originally published in the Berkeley High Jacket.