LTE: Mercer County residents concerned about policing in schools

To the Editor,

In the wake of this summer’s protests against police violence, school districts across the country have acted on calls from students, parents, and activists to remove police from schools, recognizing that they do not make our schools any safer. It’s past time for Mercer County to do the same.
As teachers, students, and concerned residents from across Mercer County, we know that this is an immediate and pressing issue in our community. Across New Jersey, Black and brown children are disproportionately referred to law enforcement and arrested at school.  Police officers–known officially as “school resource officers”–are present K-12 in seven out of eight Mercer County school districts, including Trenton and Ewing. 

Arguments against police working in schools aren’t new. Over the past two decades, advocates and researchers have raised red flags about the harm caused by the presence of police in schools and their disproportionate targeting of Black and brown children. Research shows that the use of school resource officers and referrals of student misbehavior to the police contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline and fuel racial disparities in the juvenile justice system. This negatively impacts rates of graduation and college enrollment at schools where cops are present.

During the 2013-2014 school year in New Jersey, Black students accounted for 34.5% of school-related arrests and 31.4% of referrals to law enforcement, despite only making up about 16% of the total enrollment in New Jersey’s schools. Students who are arrested face severe consequences, including emotional trauma and stigmatization upon their return to school and a higher likelihood of dropping out and future interaction with the justice system

Even students who don’t interact with these officers can experience the negative consequences of law enforcement presence in schools. Police presence can disrupt learning environments and make students feel unsafe, particularly in schools where officersuseexcessiveforce

These negative feelings resonate among our own community members. In 2018, parents and residents pushed back against the introduction of school resource officers in West Windsor-Plainsboro schools. A survey of students from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North found that 61% were uncomfortable with the presence of armed police in their schools, while
another local survey found that students feared the presence of armed officers within school grounds. Parents raised similar concerns, and a survey conducted by the local African American Parent Support Group found that the majority of parents were not comfortable with law enforcement in West Windsor-Plainsboro schools, citing concerns of racism, violence against students, and the ineffectiveness of school resource officers in crisis situations. These concerns must be taken seriously.

While the rise in school shootings over the past decade has fueled arguments that the presence of law enforcement prevents school violence, research shows that police do not actually make schools safer. There is no evidence to suggest that armed police in schools reduce the likelihood or fatality of school shootings. A study conducted by the Texas State University program ALERRT found that among 25 recent school shootings, not one was brought to an end by an armed security guard or police officer. 
Police don’t create safer learning environments in our schools; in fact, the presence of law enforcement puts marginalized students at risk. There are viable alternatives that reduce violent incidents and harmful behaviors in schools. A study by the Justice Policy Institute found that increasing the number of guidance counselors in schools promotes feelings of safety, regardless of socioeconomic conditions. The same report notes that mental health professionals, such as school psychologists trained specifically as youth mentors are a more positive investment than police presence. 

The American School Counselor Association recommends at least 1 counselor for every 250 students, yet our local schools are not meeting this national standard. Students in Mercer County need mental health support now more than ever. In the West-Windsor Plainsboro School District, there is 1 guidance counselor for every 342 students. In the Trenton School District, mental health programming was slashed just a few months ago and only reinstated after students pushed back. This is a time to increase funding for counseling, not decrease it. What does it say about the Mercer County community when our children need to fight just to receive adequate support services? 

What our community wants and needs is not more cops in schools. We need more trained mental health professionals, more guidance counselors, more of the services that actually make students feel safe and secure in our schools. Mercer County needs to commit to helping our students thrive. We can follow the precedent of schools across the country and work to shift funding away from the police and into supportive services. 

Mercer for Abolition is a community organization working to do exactly this. Our goal is to shift funding away from inflated police budgets and invest that money into our communities. This summer, community members across Mercer County showed up to fight back against racism. Right now, we have the opportunity to take the next step and do this work in our own backyard. 
Mercer For Abolition Follow us to get plugged in with this work: Email: Facebook: Instagram: @mercer_for_abolitionTwitter: @mercerabolition

Submitted by Mercer for Abolition, which is a coalition of community members in Mercer County. We recognize the role white supremacy plays in all of our lives and are working to uplift our community through defunding the police and investing resources into programs that help all community members thrive. Take our community needs survey:

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