A security guard looks out over students in the cafeteria at lunchtime in Sidney, Ohio. Image credit: Kate Way / Shutterstock
As protestors gathered outside the National Rifle Association (NRA) annual convention in Hudson, Texas, Donald Trump took the stage to give the keynote speech, an agonizing three days after the school massacre at Uvalde, also in Texas. You know the details: On May 24, 2022, a 18-year-old armed with an AR-15 assault weapon killed 21 people, 19 little kids, and two teachers at Robb Elementary School.
Trump offered a predictable solution, one often advocated by politicians on the right in the aftermath of gun violence: that schools are “soft” targets that must be “hardened.” Instead of taking action to get guns out of the hands of violent and disturbed people, Trump declared that
What we need is a top to bottom security overhaul at schools all across our country. Every building should have a single point of entry. There should be strong exterior fencing, metal detectors, and the use of new technology to make sure that no unauthorized individual can ever enter the school with a weapon. No one should ever be able to go near a classroom until they have been checked, scanned, screened, and fully approved. . .In addition, classroom doors should be hardened to make them lockable from the inside and closed to intruders from the outside. And above all from this day forward, every school in America should have a police officer or an armed resource officer on duty at all times.
It’s a punitive script we’ve seen many times before, and it was posed as a moderate counterpoint to the “extreme political agenda” of gun control advocates. But not only are these “solutions” to violence not new, they are also merely an intensification of an already aggressive approach to policing in the United States that doesn’t work. Yet the push to have more police is the only solution the right has to offer.
Why? And, if these policies don’t stop mass shootings, then who are they for?
We know they are not for those dead children in Uvalde because this “solution” was already in place at that moment. According to Politico, Uvalde had already increased its police spending dramatically: a staggering 40 percent of Uvalde’s school budget was spent on police security in 2020. Robb Elementary School, where the massacre took place, had security officers and fences. There were drills and classroom lockdowns. None of these measures prevented the tragedy that unfolded. Moreover, according to news stories, the police response was slow and a failure. They had been trained, they were armed, they were informed, and they were at the scene, yet they did not act for at least 40 minutes.
But was this a police failure? No, because we already know that police do not prevent violence.
Let me explain: The correlation between the presence of police and violence prevention may seem intuitive, but it isn’t. Take, for example, this study that appeared in the Washington Post regarding the lack of the correlation between violent crime and police power as expressed in police spending: violent crime increased from the 1970s until the 1990s despite the growing police spending, and the decline of violent crime since the 1990s could be attributed to factors beyond police spending, such as changes in employment patterns and demographic changes, not simply the expansion of police power. Similarly, a recent New York Times investigation shows how among the 433 mass shooting incidents since 2000, the incidents often ends before the police arrived. Violence precedes police.
It wasn’t a failure because School Resource Officers (SROs), placed by school districts or mandated by some states as a “hard” defense for shootings and violence, do not prevent school shootings. School shootings occur with or without SRO presence. As in Uvalde, there were SROs in Sandy Hook Elementary School (Newtown, CT) in 2012, in Stoneman Douglas High School (Parkland, FL) in 2018, and in Santa Fe High School (Santa Fe, TX) in 2018. Yet, they could not prevent the massacres. According to a report, in districts where SROs were adopted into schools between 2014–18, a full-time SRO presence had an impact on non-firearm-related violence (mainly physical fights among students) but not on gun violence. There is no evidence but the persistent myth of the police as an institution for protection against violence, as critical police scholars argue.
What we do know is that SROs are a source of daily violence against the children who attend those schools. They enhance disciplinary mechanisms and criminalize minor infractions of the students that they are supposedly there to protect, in a process of criminalization and insecurity. Their presence increases school suspensions, expulsions, and arrests. Unsurprisingly, Black kids are particularly vulnerable to these measures. SROs are a part of enacting the zero-tolerance policies at schools, which penalize minor infractions, various forms of disciplinary problems, and violations of school codes through strict codes of behavior. These policies furthermore subject Black boys and girls to harsher disciplinary measures and more suspensions, compared to white kids. According to one report which focuses on public schools in Boston and New York City, Black boys were 3 times more likely to be suspended, while Black girls were 6 times more likely to be suspended compared to their white counterparts. Nationwide, Black boys are three times as likely to be arrested at school as white boys.
As we also know, over-policing and criminalization in schools and the educational inequalities they create are closely connected to imprisonment. Among other factors that impact the lives of racialized and poor populations, harsher disciplinary measures for Black kids also increase the likelihood of dropping out. In 2019, the rate of drop-out from high school was 4.7 for white boys, compared to 6.8 for Black boys. In turn, incarceration in the United States is highest among high-school dropouts. This is what we mean by the school-to-prison pipeline, a dynamic that funnels students of color from precisely the under-resourced schools most subject to policing to prisons.
Thus, what proposals to “harden the schools” succeed at is building out a police and penal state, one that has been growing exponentially since the 1970s, into social institutions where it targets poor and racialized populations.
In fact, Trump’s keynote at NRA linked school security to the more violent state that the Right desires. In addition to advocating for an aggressive hardening of school security, he continues to demand a border wall against “illegal aliens” that will protect “this great nation.” What does this mean? Since the 1970s, it has meant securitized borders and prison expansion. It has meant wars on drugs and terror, harsher sentences, larger police budgets that permit departments to expand military-style equipment, legal, expansion of police power, and increased surveillance technologies and practices. The private security industry has grown dramatically, often paid for by tax dollars. It has meant laws that criminalize the homeless, LGBTQ+, and trans populations. Now, draconian abortion laws will surely criminalize women. All of these policies seek to manage the many political, economic, and cultural crises this nation faces through policing and criminalization alone.
SROs are part of that project. There is no doubt that most liberals will also push for more school security: in the aftermath of the movement to defund them, police budgets are being funded even more. Rather than investing in resources that permit communities to flourish by addressing poverty, unemployment, mental health problems, educational inequalities, access to health care, childcare, and safety, in the aftermath of Uvalde, we will be asked instead to invest in the imagined security of a police state that exposes children to violence on a daily basis.
SROs and the expansion of security in schools are not a solution but another stage in the expansion of state violence. And a police state, one that is primarily organized to maintain racial capitalism, cannot protect kids. Because it was never designed to protect them.
Zeynep Gönen is an assistant professor of sociology at Framingham State University.