An illustration showing a police officer standing in front of a school with his shadow over the school.

Criminalizing Kids

Published — September 8, 2021

When schools call police on kids

(Mary Ann Lawrence/USA TODAY)

Schools refer tens of thousands of students to law enforcement every year. Black children and students with disabilities get the brunt of it.

This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and USA TODAY.


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A school safety officer removed a third-grader from class, took him to a staff bathroom, closed the door and berated him, telling the frightened child to “stop crying like a little girl.”

His crime? Refusing to leave art class after an argument with another student at their Northeast Philadelphia elementary school.

In the aftermath of the 2017 incident, the Philadelphia schools issued a statement acknowledging it was not handled correctly. But a charged encounter with an officer in school is far from rare. Nationally, nearly 230,000 students were referred to law enforcement during the 2017-18 school year, exemplifying why demands to restrict policing at schools are growing.

“You’ve got some police officers that just can’t help themselves,” said the child’s father, Isaac Gardner. “You’re taking a little elementary school child in the bathroom. You ain’t supposed to be doing that.”

A Center for Public Integrity analysis of U.S. Department of Education data from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico found that school policing disproportionately affects students with disabilities, Black children and, in some states, Native American and Latino children. Nationwide, Black students, such as Gardner’s son, and students with disabilities were referred to law enforcement at nearly twice their share of the overall student population.

Schools in some states are far more likely than others to refer students to law enforcement, regardless of their race and disability status. New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin schools, for instance, did so at rates at least twice the national average. The repercussions ripple through communities in urban, suburban and rural areas alike.

The Lancaster County Public Schools, a three-school district in remote eastern Virginia, had a referral rate 17 times the national average. In Philadelphia, one of the nation’s 20 largest school districts, the referral rate for all students was seven times the national average.

In 31 states as well as the District of Columbia, Black students were referred to law enforcement at more than twice the rate of white students, the Public Integrity analysis found.

These sharp disparities come despite years of mounting pressure on schools to stop policing kids.

“They’re criminalizing some ordinary behavior of students and they’re certainly disproportionately referring students of color to the juvenile justice system rather than disciplining them at school,” said Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center, a Pennsylvania legal advocacy group.

In 2017, a national study at the University of California, Irvine, found that on-campus arrest rates for children younger than 15 increased in areas where the federal government made grant money available in 1999 for school resource officers — a response to the mass shooting at Columbine High School. The funding was available whether a district struggled with crime or not, which helped researchers tease out the impact.

Not all school law enforcement referrals end in an arrest or charges filed. But students may still be issued citations that require them to appear before judges or other juvenile court system officials. The federal data doesn’t specify what the referral was for, nor the result.

In 2019, a Vermont student with a disability that causes bone pain was forcefully subdued by a school resource officer after educators suspected, erroneously, that the 17-year-old had a vape.

Logo with an officer's badge has type over it that says Criminalizing kids: when schools call the police on students.

The officer demanded to search his backpack. The boy objected, using foul language, and the officer told him that he was “acting retarded.” The officer pushed the student to the floor, arresting and handcuffing him and leaving him with bloody knuckles and bruised wrists.

In Vermont, students with disabilities accounted for 48% of students referred to law enforcement in 2017-18. That’s the highest among all states and more than twice their share of the overall student population.

"These are kids that school districts have traditionally not done a good job of helping," said Diane Smith Howard, managing attorney for criminal and juvenile justice for the National Disability Rights Network. "They don't do a good job, the kids act out and then instead of fixing the problem, they call the police."

After the 2019 incident, the boy missed classes during a months-long battle in juvenile court over charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest — charges that were dropped after police released cell phone and bodycam videos of the incident.

The teen eventually earned his diploma from an adult school. A settlement last year with the city and his school district, Maple Run Unified, required a $30,000 payment to the teen and training for the officer. But a nondisclosure agreement restricts public discussion about the case.

This spring, civil rights attorneys sent a letter of protest to Vermont education officials after discovering that two school districts — one of them Maple Run — used Medicaid funding intended for students with disabilities to instead hire school resource officers.

Claremont Student Equity Coalition member Jayla Sheffield with megaphone leads chants to stop funding for a resource officer in the Claremont Unified School District.
Claremont Student Equity Coalition member Jayla Sheffield with megaphone leads chants as more than 30 people protest to stop funding for a school resource officer in the Claremont Unified School District on July 12, 2021. (Terry Pierson/The Press-Enterprise via Getty Images)

Decades of policing students

The roots of school policing reach back to 1948, when Los Angeles formed a security unit that grew into a full-fledged school-based law enforcement agency. In the 1950s Flint, Michigan, posted officers borrowed from city ranks in schools to serve as “liaisons” in an anti-crime strategy. School shootings, including the 1999 Columbine massacre, led to an expansion of this policing. “Zero tolerance” for weapons morphed into crackdowns on kids’ behavior.

Between 2006 and 2018, the share of schools reporting the presence of one or more security officers on-site at least once a week grew from 42% to 61%. The higher the enrollment and proportion of children eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, the more likely schools are to have security, according to a 2020 report from the U.S. departments of Education and Justice.

Federal funds remain available to schools that want to hire police. And because of the specter of school shootings, many parents, staff and children like to know an armed officer is on site. The University of California, Irvine, study found that principals in schools with more officers reported lower rates of criminal incidents. But with that decline came an increased likelihood that children accused of disruptive behavior would come into contact with someone in the criminal justice system rather than a principal or dean of students.

Increasing outcry and concerns that children of color are targeted have prompted some districts to remove police from schools. The trend quickened after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a Black man, in 2020.

Some states, Virginia most notably, have also taken steps to slash referrals of children to law enforcement for minor incidents.

A 2015 Public Integrity investigation identified Virginia as the top state for referrals in the 2011-12 school year. The commonwealth’s rate of about 16 referrals per 1,000 students was nearly three times the national rate. The investigation revealed that Virginia middle-school students, some with disabilities, were arrested and charged with crimes such as felony assault on police and obstruction of justice.

In 2020, after years of adopting and rejecting multiple reforms, legislators approved a bill making Virginia the first state to prohibit police from charging students with disorderly conduct at school or school-sponsored events. Legislators also removed language from the state code that educators said contributed to driving up referrals because many believed it obliged them to report any potential crime, including a possible misdemeanor.

The reforms went into effect in July 2020. The Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center pressed lawmakers for years to enact them, producing reports that highlighted widespread disparities in referral rates and cataloging stories of children charged with crimes for minor rule offenses.

“It’s a great step,” said Rachael Deane, the legal director of the Youth Justice Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center. “But I still think that pieces of the puzzle that aren’t in place yet [will mean continued] high numbers of referrals from schools to law enforcement.”

Public Integrity’s analysis of the most recent data available found that in 2017-18, before these reforms were approved, Virginia’s schools were still collectively reporting students to law enforcement at three times the national rate, topping all other states.

The Lancaster County schools, serving about 1,160 students that year, had a rate higher than any other traditional Virginia district, behind only small alternative schools. Tracking both state and national trends, Black students and students with disabilities in the district made up a disproportionate share of referrals. 

Also striking is the focus on younger children. Educators referred students 65 times from Lancaster’s middle school of only 396 students and 19 times from the similarly sized elementary school, compared with 14 at Lancaster High School.

Lancaster County Public Schools Superintendent Dan Russell said he expects those numbers to fall now that Virginia law no longer requires educators to notify police of an incident. The process, he said, often went no further than a “simple conversation” about “two kids horseplaying.” If officers isolate children to speak to them about an incident, Russell said, an administrator must be present.

Russell also said only seven incidents in the 2017-18 school year led to more serious police involvement, but that school records didn’t indicate why.

Lancaster County Sheriff’s Capt. Martin Shirilla said that if educators notified them about an incident, a school resource officer would keep a record “for statistical purposes.”

Research shows that those early interactions can have lasting effects. A 2020 Tulane University and University of Washington study tracking Seattle Public Schools students over time found lingering effects from middle-school interactions with police. 

“Black respondents who experience contact with the police by eighth grade have eleven times greater odds of being arrested when they are 20 years old than their white counterparts,” researchers found.

‘The overuse of law enforcement’

With the advent of cell phone video, the public has seen indisputable evidence that some officers are injuring or threatening students, including some as young as 5 years old. The Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, documented at least 62 cases between 2010 and 2018 where police officers were accused of assaulting students.

A video that went viral this year shows two police officers in Montgomery County, Maryland, haranguing a sobbing kindergartener they’d subdued and handcuffed in 2020 after he walked out of school. Officers yelled at length at the child, with one declaring: “This is why people need to beat their kids.”

Grainy cell phone video taken in March 2018 at a high school in suburban Minneapolis showed the tense moments before a police officer deployed a stun gun to subdue a then-14-year-old high school student, leaving him hospitalized, after the school resource officer called for backup. Burnsville Police Department records indicate that seven officers “responded to an incident of disorderly conduct.”

Not all incidents are captured on camera, though — or even in federal records.

According to the federal data, the Pittsburgh district made 191 referrals to law enforcement and had zero arrests during the 2017-18 school year. The district acknowledges that’s inaccurate because of a data entry error.

Schools and districts enter their own figures into the federal database. With tens of thousands of such entities, some errors are inevitable. Nevertheless, the data is the only detailed information on discipline that covers nearly all public schools, and experts in the field say the stark disparities it shows are real.

Earlier this year, Pittsburgh’s district formed the “Re-Imagine School Safety Task Force” to address the impact on Black students and students with disabilities. An audit commissioned by the district on seven years of school police department data found that key information, such as the reason officers were dispatched to school, incident location and student disability status, were missing from reports at least a third of the time. That same report revealed that 80% of students arrested were Black.

“We need to have an honest conversation about the roles we play as adults and how we don’t protect and support our students the way that we may think we do,” Pittsburgh school board member Devon Taliaferro told district administrators in June during a meeting about school safety data.

For years, civil and disability rights advocates have pressed school boards and state lawmakers to get police officers off campuses, arguing that they often posed risks to students they were hired to serve.

“Cops are trained to be cops,” said Marilyn Mahusky, staff attorney for the Disability Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid. “Consistent with their training, they demand that the behavior stop, and if it doesn’t, you’re charged, you’re arrested.”

In January 2018, two weeks after scuffling with Fair Haven, Vermont, police in a bathroom stall at her high school, a student in distress found herself in trouble again. She returned to school, in violation of her at-home suspension, and refused to leave the principal’s office. This time, officers restrained and arrested the girl, who later faced charges of assault on law enforcement, disorderly conduct, trespassing and resisting arrest.

“While on the way to the hospital, the defendant stated she wanted all of us to die, and that she wanted to die as well,” a police department sergeant wrote in an affidavit about the case.

Mahusky was among the advocates backing state legislation that would prohibit schools from hiring school resource officers, called SROs for short. The state’s governor, Phil Scott, argued that local school districts, not state lawmakers, should make that decision.

“Cops are trained to be cops. Consistent with their training, they demand that the behavior stop, and if it doesn’t, you’re charged, you’re arrested.”

Marilyn Mahusky, staff attorney for the Disability Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid

While the legislative push in Vermont failed, dozens of school districts across the country have canceled their contracts with police departments or cut their policing budgets, some after identifying disparities in referrals and arrests.

The Minneapolis, Oakland, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle school systems ended their agreements with local law enforcement agencies. Two of the nation’s largest districts, Chicago and Los Angeles, slashed their budgets, the former by half and the latter by almost a third.

Change also came to places such as Des Moines, Iowa, where the school board ended an agreement of at least two decades with the city police department this winter.

During the 2017-18 school year, federal data show that Black students represented 42% of all law enforcement referrals in the district, more than twice their share of the student population.

Deborah VanVelzen, an officer with the Des Moines police department, patrolled the halls at district schools for 15 years before taking on a new role in late 2019 as youth services coordinator for the police department, overseeing youth mentoring and diversion programs.

“We don’t want to send kids to court. That’s not our goal,” VanVelzen said.

But in her current role, she has noticed racial disparities in court referrals.

Officer Deborah VanVelzen give hugs two at a time at Hubbell Elementary School in 2016.
Officer Deborah VanVelzen give hugs two at a time at Hubbell Elementary School in 2016 after Urbandale Police Officer Justin Martin and Des Moines Police Sgt. Anthony "Tony" Beminio were shot and killed. (Merle Laswell/Des Moines Register)

“It’s there, you can see it compared to what our city’s demographics are,” VanVelzen said. “People have said in the past that it exists. Then you see the stats, and you’re like, ‘OK, it does.’”

The Des Moines district acknowledges that school officials help create and sustain the disparities. That means solving the problem, there and elsewhere, will take far more effort than just canceling a contract with police.

“In the community, it came off as SROs are the problem. If it was that easy, we probably would have identified that a long time ago,” said Jake Troja, the district’s director of school climate transformation. “The issue is, systematically, the overuse of law enforcement and underpreparedness of our school system to respond to safety violations and violations of law in an equitable manner.”

The pattern repeats across Iowa, where Black students were referred to law enforcement at five times the rate of white students. Students with disabilities were referred at twice the rate of the overall student population.

In incidents involving students with disabilities, often little consideration is given to the student’s individualized education programs and the behavior intervention plans outlined in those documents, said Nathan Kirstein, children’s and investigation staff attorney with Disability Rights Iowa, a federally funded legal assistance and advocacy nonprofit. Kirstein has represented several families of children younger than 10 who were restrained or detained by police officers after classroom outbursts.

“Were they in places where they were struggling behaviorally? Yes,” Kirstein said. “Did police need to be involved? No. That’s a huge failure on multiple levels.”

Setting boundaries

Resource officers are most effective when there are guidelines or memorandums of understanding that stipulate that schools should not dispatch them to handle routine conduct violations, said VanVelzen, a former national secretary of the National Association of School Resource Officers, a professional group.

“A genuine, properly trained, properly selected school resource officer does what’s right,” VanVelzen said. “The SRO is not going to be snatching up kids because they’re wearing a hat. That’s not a legal issue.”

In 2014, during the Obama administration, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice issued joint guidance aimed at ensuring that Black and Latino students are not unfairly disciplined in school.

The Trump administration rescinded the guidance, arguing that it made schools reluctant to discipline students for unruly or violent behavior because they feared federal discrimination investigations.

In announcing the decision to roll it back in December 2018, former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos cited concerns about “school environments where discipline decisions were based on a student’s race” and maintained that local districts should make the final call on student discipline decisions.

During the Obama administration, referral rates for students with disabilities and Black, Hispanic and white students all dropped, the Public Integrity analysis shows.

It’s too soon to know whether racial disparities in school discipline increased or decreased during the Trump administration because the 2017-18 data is the latest available.

In May, 23 state attorneys general wrote to Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking them to reissue and strengthen the Obama-era guidance. Twelve Democratic U.S. senators signed a letter requesting similar action.

Catherine Lhamon, who served as assistant secretary for civil rights during the Obama administration, is poised to return to the role. During her confirmation hearing in July, Lhamon said she would push to reinstate the discipline guidance.

The Department of Education would not make Suzanne Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights, available for an interview, citing scheduling conflicts.

Discipline disparities happen in states and districts without high overall referral rates, too, federal data shows.

Alabama’s rate is one of the lowest in the country, according to the Public Integrity analysis. Yet in Mobile County, the state’s largest district, the share of Black students and students with disabilities who were referred to law enforcement was disproportionately high.

Students with disabilities represented 56% of all law enforcement referrals in the district, more than twice their share of the student population. Black students made up 78% of referrals but less than half the student body. The Mobile County schools did not respond to requests for comment.

Advocates said these groups of students are often unfairly penalized across the state, which has faced criticism for its lack of training requirements for school resource officers.

“The whole [theory] of SROs was supposed to be about building community and keeping kids safe within schools. And instead, it’s an extra place for them to police with impunity,” said Jenny Ryan, the staff attorney for the Children’s Rights Law Clinic at the University of Alabama.

Last June, as other big-city districts cut back their commitment to school police, Philadelphia rebranded its police officers as safety officers and decided they would no longer patrol school hallways. The move was part of a years-long effort to transform the police force and improve interactions between officers and students.

Students, parents, teachers and community members belonging to Reclaim Our Schools in Los Angeles call on the school board to abolish the LAUSD School Police during a protest in 2021.
Students, parents, teachers and community members belonging to Reclaim Our Schools in Los Angeles call on the school board to abolish the LAUSD School Police during a protest in 2021. (Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)

A diversion program launched six years ago has reduced the number of arrests in schools by 84%, according to the district. And in 2014, the district directed school officers to stop responding to internal calls related to minor student offenses such as insubordination.

That should have prevented the incident at Solis-Cohen Elementary, when the officer removed the third grader from class in 2017. But it did not.

And the changes in Philadelphia didn’t stop the racial disparities in law enforcement referrals, the 2017-18 data shows.

About half of district students are Black. Yet Black students were nearly three quarters of those referred to law enforcement in Philadelphia during that school year.

“What we see is this trend of continuing to have more arrests, more referrals against Black students,” said McInerney of the Education Law Center. “So it’s a lot of exclusionary discipline, disproportionately impacting Black students and disrupting their education.”

The Philadelphia school district declined to make an official available for an interview. Spokeswoman Monica Lewis sent a statement that said, “Our school safety officers work to provide a safe and secure learning environment for our students and staff.” Lewis added that officials reviewed the Solis-Cohen Elementary incident and “believe it was appropriately handled,” but she would not clarify whether she meant the officer’s actions — which the school district had previously criticized — or the district’s response.

In 2017, as the Philadelphia schools sought to resolve the matter at Solis-Cohen, district leaders enlisted Isaac Gardner, the third-grader’s father, to help with a review of school police officer practices. But that invitation was the last Gardner heard of the effort.

“They never had plans on doing anything like that,” Gardner said. “Because nothing ever happened.”

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