Be her resource: SROs and girls of color

Excerpts from this toolkit by the National Black Women’s Justice Institute and the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, by Monique W. Morris. Rebecca Epstein, and Aishatu Yusuf. For data, sources, and Guiding Principles and Policy Recommendations for Schools and SROs Working with Girls of Color, please see the original PDF

As awareness of the “school-to-prison pipeline” has increased, concerns have largely centered on boys of color. However, girls of color also experience disproportionate contact with school law enforcement compared to their white peers, but have their own, unique story rooted in their gender and race.

SROs are often students’ first point of contact with the juvenile legal system, and these officers wield an extraordinary amount of discretion. The result has been a particularly significant impact on the vulnerable populations that are most at risk of being criminalized in schools.

Below are some key findings that emerged from the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality and the National Black Women’s Justice Institute’s focus groups and interviews conducted with SROs and girls of color in the South, a region that is relatively unexamined in such research.

  • SROs described their most important function as ensuring safety and responding to criminal behavior, yet they report that educators routinely ask them to respond to disciplinary matters.
  • SROs do not receive regular training or other supports specific to interactions with girls of color.
  • SROs attempt to modify the behavior and appearance of girls of color to conform with mainstream cultural norms, urging them to act more “ladylike.”
  • Girls of color primarily define the role of SROs as maintaining school safety. They define their sense of safety as being built on communication and positive, respectful relationships with SROs.
  • African-American girls, in particular, identify racial bias as a factor in SROs’ decision-making process. African-American girls perceive that their racial identity negatively affects how SROs respond to them on campus.

SROs in power

The presence of SROs has increased in recent years, partly in response to high-profile school shootings and the rise of zero-tolerance school disciplinary policies. As a result, although fewer than 100 SROs worked in U.S. schools in the 1970s, by 2007, according to one study, that number had increased to approximately 19,000. According to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education for the 2013-14 school year, SROs were working in 24% of elementary schools and 42% of high schools across the country and are more often present in schools that have high populations of Black or Latino students.

In December 2016, a White House analysis of this data noted that the rising number of SROs in these schools has not been matched by an increase in school counselors: Black students are roughly 11% more likely than white students to have a school law enforcement officer in their school, but they are no more likely to have a guidance counselor. Hispanic students are only slightly less likely to have an SLEO in their school but are 10% less likely to have a guidance counselor. And minorities are between roughly 20 and 40% more likely to be one of the 1.6 million students who attend a school where there is a school law enforcement officer but no guidance counselor.

No uniform legal framework specifically limits or guides SROs’ actions beyond minimum federal standards, and it is extremely difficult to mount legal challenges. Although contracts between schools and police departments — known as Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) — can provide a baseline of guidance and standards, only 21 states require such agreements, and when they are present, can fail to clarify roles.

Many school disciplinary categories are based on subjective standards, such as the offense of “willful defiance.” Some states have enacted laws that criminalize such misbehavior. According to a 2016 analysis published in The Atlantic, twenty-two states have made it a crime to disrupt school. Under these laws, SROs have charged children for behavior such as wearing too much perfume.

Recommendations for districts and police departments to improve interactions between SROs and girls of color include:

  • Clearly delineate law enforcement roles and responsibilities in formal agreements
  • Collect and review data that can be disaggregated by race and gender
  • Implement non-punitive, trauma-informed responses to girls of color
  • Offer specialized training to officers and educators on race, gender issues and mental health

Sending kids into the legal system

“Disturbing-school” laws gained national notoriety in 2015, when a sheriff’s deputy flipped the desk of a girl of color while she was still sitting at it and dragged her across the floor because she refused to leave class. The girl was charged with disturbing school, and statistics indicate that she was more likely than not to end up in the court system: experts estimate that about 55% of cases like hers ended up in juvenile court in South Carolina, where 29,000 disturbing-school referrals were made to the state Department of Juvenile Justice between 2001-2016. SROs’ broad discretion in enforcement activities can result in sending students into the juvenile justice system instead of the principal’s office.

According to recent reports, for example, SROs have arrested students for cursing and yelling. A federal court even upheld an SRO’s decision to arrest and handcuff a 13-year-old student for “repeatedly burping, laughing, and leaning into the classroom [, which] stopped the flow of student educational activities, thereby injecting disorder into the learning environment.”

In addition to the factor of subjective determinations, SROs’ enforcement actions can also result in students’ deeper involvement in the juvenile justice system by means of escalation. For example, if conflict ensues in the course of an SRO’s enforcement of a minor disciplinary violation, that student may be arrested for disorderly conduct.

As a result of these and other factors, schools with SROs report higher rates of student contact with the juvenile justice system — particularly for low-level offenses — than schools without SROs. In total, according to the U.S. Department of Education, educators arrested approximately 20,591 girls during the 2013-2014 school year. While these statistics are startling, Black girls face particularly serious disparities.

Did you know?

  • Black girls are more than 2.6x more likely to be referred to law enforcement as white girls, and almost 4x as likely to be arrested.
  • Black girls are almost 4x more likely to be arrested in school than white girls.
  • Black girls are close to 3x more likely to be referred to law enforcement than white girls.
  • Latina students are close to 3x more likely to be arrested in elementary school than white girls.
  • Black girls in the South are more than 5x more likely than white girls to be suspended 1+ times.
  • Black girls in the South are 4x more likely than white girls to be arrested.
  • Black girls in the South are nearly 3x more likely than white girls to be referred to law enforcement.
  • Students who have been arrested at school are more 3x likely to drop out than their peers.
  • Students required to appear in court are 4x more likely to leave school.
  • Students who drop out of high school are 8x more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.

In the 2013-2014 school year, Indigenous/Native American girls were suspended more than three times as often as white girls, and Latina students were suspended 1.6 times as often as their white peers. African-American girls were suspended over five times as often as white girls — and twice as often as white boys. African-Americans comprised 15.6% of female students, but accounted for 28.2% of girls referred to law enforcement and 37.3% of girls arrested on campus.

Data also shows that discretionary offenses such as violating dress codes uniquely affect Black girls. For example, one Massachusetts charter school repeatedly penalized Black girls for violating a rule against hair extensions, including banning them from sports teams and prohibiting them from attending prom — though the same school did not discipline white girls whose dyed hair violated rules against hair coloring. Yet, in contrast, students are charged at nearly equal rates for objectively determined offenses, with white students charged at slightly higher rates.

Despite these concerns, data on the race and gender of students who interact with SROs and of SROs themselves is rarely collected, and guidance to improve SROs’ interactions with girls of color remains sparse. The toolkit’s research uncovered no SRO training curricula specifically related to girls of color, and few data collection protocols that would provide schools and police departments with sufficient information to expose inequitable patterns or practices involving girls of color and to hold officials accountable.

Key findings

SROs on roles and responsibilities

  • SROs primarily define their role as ensuring safety in school — which they define broadly to include a positive school environment, healthy relationships with students, and keeping students in school — not responding to disciplinary infractions. SROs described their most important function as ensuring safety in response to violence and criminal activity by students and from external threats. Most SROs stated that their role did not include responding to disciplinary matters.
  • Educators routinely request SROs to enforce discipline.SROs stated that educators rely on them to enforce school rules, rather than limiting their engagement to incidents involving violations of the law.
  • SROs do not receive regular training or other supports specific to interactions with girls of color. No participants had received training specific to considerations relevant to girls of color. Participant SROs recognized this as a gap they wished to close in order to respond more effectively to girls of color.
  • SROs do not receive information about community resources that could offer support to girls of color as alternatives to discipline, which leads them to rely on ad hoc informal networks. SROs described resorting to personal resources, including family members and close colleagues, because of the dearth of formal information and professional development opportunities to provide them with culturally competent and gender-responsive community-based resources for girls of color.

SROs on race, gender, and sexuality

  • Racial tensions in local communities appear to affect the dynamics between SROs and girls of color. SROs — particularly those who identify as white — believe that students of color, including girls, have preconceived opinions of SROs as inherently biased that are formed by their experiences with community officers. Others, however, stated that positive interactions in school can help change perceptions of local police.
  • SROs attempt to modify the behavior and appearance of girls of color to conform with mainstream cultural norms regarding gender roles and sexuality. Participants discussed urging girls to present themselves in ways that the officers perceived to be more respectable and “ladylike.”

Girls of color on SRO roles and responsibilities

  • Girls of color primarily define the role of SROs as maintaining school safety. Girls view SROs’ function as keeping them safe from student-based violence and potential external threats.
  • Girls of color view relationship-building as essential to officers’ effectiveness in maintaining safety. Girls indicated that officers most effectively establish a sense of safety by developing positive, respectful relationships with students as individuals.
  • Girls of color suggest that communication with SROs is key to their sense of safety. Participants emphasized that improved communication would lead SROs to better understand their perspectives and experiences that, in turn, would help build a sense of safety in school.
  • Girls of color attribute some punitive responses to broader external factors that they believe SROs do not fully recognize. Girls of color described that SROs fail to recognize underlying structural factors and issues in their families or broader community that affect their behavior and relationships in school.

Girls of color on race, gender, and sexuality

  • African-American girls identify racial bias as a factor in SROs’ decision-making process. Specifically, African-American girls perceive that their racial identity negatively affects how SROs respond to them on campus.
  • Girls of color report that SROs attempt to modify their behavior and appearance to conform with mainstream cultural norms regarding gender roles and sexuality. Participants described interactions in which SROs tried to make them act and look more “ladylike.”

The disproportionate discipline of girls of color in schools contributes to internalized gendered racial oppression, the process by which Black females absorb and accept the dominant culture’s distortions of Black feminine identity (e.g. as less intelligent, hypersexual, loud, sassy, “ghetto,” or domestic) and oppressive patriarchal ideologies that undermine the healthy development of Black females. This study revealed that some girls blamed themselves for negative behavior and interactions with SROs in ways that reinforced bias and stereotypes — for example, answering a question about why Black girls are disproportionately disciplined by stating “because they’re ignorant.” However, on further probing, the same girls offered more nuanced layers of analysis that reflected a greater degree of rigor and objectivity, ultimately recognizing the influence that bias plays in their interactions with SROs.

What can districts do to improve discipline outcomes?

For the full, in-depth look at the data and research on relationships between SROs and girls of color, and how school districts can better address these concerns, please read the full toolkit and its comprehensive analysis of the findings, including direct quotes from multiple parties. The toolkit further discusses ways for SROs and girls of color to collaboratively create a definition of safety in schools through effective, respectful communication, and trauma-informed and healing-centered responses, with punitive roles limited strictly to criminal law enforcement. It also provides 9 “Guiding Principles and Policy Recommendations for Schools and SROs Working with Girls of Color” with real-life examples from other districts.


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