21. Court Ruling Provides “Blueprint” to Reform Excessive, Discriminatory Policing in Schools

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

It is no wonder that school districts feel pressure to protect children. Between January 2015 and March 2019, there were 97 school shootings in 31 states that ended in the deaths of 94 people. Yet in January 2019, a state court in California ordered the Stockton Unified School District to rein in its use of “school resource officers” to protect students. The order was the result of a three-year investigation, conducted by the California Department of Justice, that revealed “widespread abuses” by police in Stockton schools, including “use of excessive force, unconstitutional and ‘random and suspicionless’ search and seizure procedures using dogs and pat-downs, and frequent arrests targeting even the youngest students,” according to YES! Magazine. The procedures often resulted in students “being treated like criminals for misconduct typical of schoolchildren, especially those with disabilities,” Mike Males reported. He characterized the final judgment, issued by Sacramento’s Superior Court, as “unprecedented in strength and scope” and “a blueprint for reforming other districts that suffer from overpolicing.”

The California Justice Department’s investigation showed the district had turned thousands of minor student misbehaviors—commonplace in any school—into criminal offenses, disproportionately affecting black, Latino, and disabled students. School police overused handcuffs and restraints on students and conducted random and unannounced searches of students’ belongings using police dogs, while school officials engaged in searches that violated students’ rights to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. In many cases, overreactions by undertrained officers created escalations that led to student arrests.

A May 2015 analysis of state crime statistics by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice revealed that in a district with around 40,000 students—94 percent of whom are people of color—Stockton’s school officers had arrested more than 1,800 students on criminal charges in 2012. That included 182 students who were age nine or younger, a rate 37 times higher than all other law enforcement agencies in California.

Analyzing incident reports, Justice Department investigators found that the district and its police systematically discriminated against black and Latino students when referring them to law enforcement and making arrests. As David Washburn reported for EdSource, investigators found that black students aged ten and over were 148 percent more likely to be arrested than other students, while Latino students aged ten and over were 124 percent more likely to be arrested than other students.

A January 1989 shooting at a Stockton elementary school left six people dead and led to the development of the district’s use of armed school resource officers, YES! Magazine reported. But instead of protecting Stockton campuses from intruders, “these officers quickly turned to criminalizing the district’s students.” As fears that every school is at risk of a shooting drive demands to arm teachers, Males noted that “school resource officers painted as ‘mentors’ may seem a reasonable middle ground.” However, in practice, school resource officers are often “bullies in blue,” as the American Civil Liberties Union concluded in a multistate analysis.

Noting that while the Stockton school district was under state investigation school arrests dropped by 75 percent, YES! Magazine described the court’s decision as a “major milestone.” The court’s January 2019 ruling requires the district to establish clear policies and procedures for how and when administrators refer students to law enforcement, to reform use-of-force policies and practices, to ensure that searches or seizures conform with constitutional standards, and to hire a trained disability coordinator at the police department to ensure compliance with disability discrimination laws. It also requires Stockton schools to end officer arrests of students for disciplinary issues that do not constitute “a major threat to school safety.” The district will also be required to provide a list of arrested students so that their records can be expunged. The Justice Department will monitor the district for five years to ensure that it complies with the court’s requirements.

The California decision to end aggressive policing in Stockton’s schools received coverage in local news outlets, but little in the way of national attention. Mike Males’s report for YES! Magazine was distinctive in highlighting that the court’s final 26-page judgment could provide a model for other school districts throughout the country to follow as a way of addressing excessive and often discriminatory policing in schools.

Mike Males, “California Decision Aims to End Aggressive Policing in Schools,” YES! Magazine, February 14, 2019, https://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/california-decision-aims-to-end-aggressive-policing-in-schools-20190214.

David Washburn, “Stockton Unified Settles State Complaint over Discriminatory Policing Practices,” EdSource, January 22, 2019, https://edsource.org/2019/stockton-unified-settles-state-complaint-over-discriminatory-policing-practices/607559.

Student Researcher: Vinca Rivera-Perez (College of Marin)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)