Staff Columnist

More police might be disproportionate response to school security concerns

Iowa City considers placing more school resource officers

Chris Lynch, President of Iowa City School Board, asks students a question during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Liberty High School in North Liberty on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017.  (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Chris Lynch, President of Iowa City School Board, asks students a question during a ribbon-cutting ceremony at Liberty High School in North Liberty on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

Iowa City officials are considering placing more police officers in our schools.

The Iowa City School Board is expected to discuss that and other recommendations from its school safety advisory committee at tonight’s meeting.

However, some parents and community advocates worry school resource officers risk overcriminalizing teenagers, especially teens of color, and also fall short of the stated goal of reducing school violence.

School administrators in Iowa and elsewhere regularly bring forward proposals to increase police presence, often framed as a precaution against school shootings. The latest round of discussions in Iowa City began last year, after a former student at a Parkland, Fla. high school shot and killed 17 people.

The likelihood of any given school building experiencing an active shooter situation is extremely small. Children are more likely to die while traveling to school or playing interscholastic sports than to be killed by a gunshot in the school building, risk assessment expert David Ropeik wrote in a Washington Post column last year.

Similarly, the odds that a school officer would be in position to eliminate a threat are not very good.

Stoneman Douglas High School had a dedicated school resource officer who was on site during the February 2018 massacre. The officer remained outside the building for the duration of the event, while the shooter left campus unimpeded.

The local sheriff and other law enforcement professionals later criticized the officer’s response. He was suspended without pay and then chose to leave the force.

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I do not mean to second guess any police officer’s job performance. I cannot begin to comprehend the enormous challenges that must come with the task of protecting others from violence and wielding deadly force.

However, assigning armed officers to school buildings is a policy consideration. It is politicians and bureaucrats, not police officers themselves, who must decide.

The number of school arrests documented at Iowa schools more than doubled between the 2013-2014 and 2015-2016 school years, according to a report published this year by the American Civil Liberties Union. Predictably, buildings with school resource officers tended to have more arrests than schools without, and minority students were more likely to face law enforcement referrals than their white peers.

In some cases, police response is appropriate, but as the authors of the ACLU report note, “many school arrests arise from criminalizing common adolescent behaviors.” They point to several absurd cases, like a 2015 case where high school seniors in Tennessee were sentenced to 48 hours in jail after they repeatedly wore sagging pants to school.

Maybe that is an outlier, but since there’s no uniform reporting of police activity in American schools, nobody can give you a detailed account what school resource officers are doing.

Nationally, ACLU counted 230,000 law enforcement referrals and 61,000 arrests in the most recent school year on record, although the real figures may be even higher due to underreporting. Your child is far more likely to face a frivolous encounter with a police office than to witness a school shooting.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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