ORCID (Links to author’s additional scholarship at ORCID.org)
Jason P. Nance: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-0048-8117
Recent data indicate that the majority of schools now have regular contact with law enforcement officers, transforming the educational experience for hundreds of thousands of students nationwide. The proper role of police officers in schools, if any, has been hotly debated for years. But this debate was elevated to an unprecedented level during the summer of 2020 following the tragic deaths of George Floyd and others, precipitating national calls to 'defund the police' and leading many school districts to reconsider their relationships with law enforcement agencies. This debate over whether police officers belong in schools continues today. While proponents argue that a police presence is necessary to keep students safe, the existing empirical literature assessing the efficacy of school police officer programs in creating safe environments is mixed at best. The legal and policy implications for students, however, are more established. An increased law enforcement presence in schools has tightened the intersection between schools and the criminal justice system, a phenomenon known as the 'school-to-prison pipeline', and can lead to severe outcomes for students.
This Article contributes to the scholarly literature on the school-to-prison pipeline in several ways. Most importantly, we are the first researchers to examine data spanning a decade uncovering critical longitudinal trends. We find that both the percentage of schools relying on law enforcement and the magnitude of law enforcement presence in schools increased significantly from 2009 to 2018. Furthermore, we find that regular contact with law enforcement is strongly connected to the increased rate at which school officials report students to law enforcement agencies for committing various offenses over this entire time period, including for non-violence offenses. Given these findings, it would be logical to assume that the rate of reporting students to law enforcement also increased. However, we find that the opposite is true—reporting rates actually decreased quite significantly. While the data does not reveal the reasons for this unexpected decline, we suspect that it is attributable to a combination of factors, including requiring schools to publicly disclose the number of referrals to law enforcement and a failure to accurately report all referrals in violation of federal law.
In addition, our study highlights the complexities associated with race and student discipline. We find that the overall concentration of students of color in a school largely did not influence the rate at which schools reported students to law enforcement at any point during the time span. While this finding on its face may seem inconsistent with the prominent normative literature, it actually comports with our general understanding of the nuanced ways that implicit racial bias influences school officials’ decisions in the school disciplinary context. Specifically, implicit racial bias appears to wield more influence when disciplinary incidents require educators to subjectively characterize behavior, such as determining whether a student has acted in a defiant, disruptive, or disrespectful manner. However, for objectively-defined disciplinary incidents that require less characterization (e.g., possession of drugs, theft, or physical altercations)—which are the bases for most law enforcement referrals—the effects of implicit bias are mitigated, often resulting in fewer racial equity concerns.
Arizona State Law Journal
school-to-prison pipeline, policing, student discipline, schools
Jason P. Nance & Michael Heise, Law Enforcement Officers, Students, and the School-to-Prison Pipeline: A Longitudinal Perspective, 54 ARIZ. St. L.J. 527 (2022)