The Garrisoning of Our Schools

While students and allies march and rally for stricter gun control in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School massacre in Parkland, Florida, police departments around the country have joined with school districts to push for more armed officers in schools. 

Cops in schools have become an article of faith for law enforcement. Their efforts are being assisted by the National Association of School Resources Officers, which lobbies for more school resource officers (SROs) and touts the occupation as “the fastest-growing area of law enforcement,” as well as the National Rifle Association, which represents the firearm and security companies who stand to profit from increased spending on school safety measures.

A SRO is a sworn law enforcement agent who is empowered to make arrests. SROs are usually armed with handcuffs, a loaded gun, an electroshock device, a tearing agent and an inventory of coercive physical techniques to achieve pain compliance. In many communities. SROs are given a disciplinary function; public schools are outsourcing the moral upbringing of our children to the police department.

Armed officers are not cheap and, in this era of declining resources in public education, SROs and other armed personnel come at the expense of other investments: smaller classes sizes, more teachers with better pay and rewards to develop their craft, more paraprofessionals to assist teachers, expanded tutoring services for students who fall behind, greater access to qualified mentors, more guidance counselors, training in de-escalation, mediation, and crisis intervention, development and implementation of anti-bullying programming, and bridging the distance between educational institutions and their communities.

The phenomenon of the SRO is associated with the appearance of “target hardening” approaches (bars, barriers, fences, hostile planting), surveillance, metal detectors, active-shooter drills and threat assessment training for teachers and administrators.

The vision at work is that of the garrison school, an effect of what political scientist Harold Lasswell calls the “socialization of danger” in his famous 1941 American Journal of Sociology article, “The Garrison State.” By adapting this phrase, I mean to refer to those strategies and effects that pull ordinary residents into the security process by routinizing the threat of extraordinary violence.

Placing cops in schools has failed in its declared goal of protecting students and teachers. In 1975, about 1 percent of schools in the US had an armed police presence. By 1994, pushed by more than two decades of crime wave hysteria, that percentage had increased to 13 percent. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that from 2015-16, 48 percent of schools nationally had a sworn law enforcement officer present at least once a week, and in many of these buildings, police were a daily fixture.

Despite the sharp increase in armed police presence over the years, school shootings continue unabated. These trends are punctuated by high-profile illustrations of failure. Scot Peterson, who spent most of his law enforcement career as an SRO, remained outside Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland, Fla., while a teenager armed with an AR-15 killed 14 students and 3 teachers. Three months later, a student at Santa Fe High School in southeast Texas, a building with armed officers present, killed eight students and two teachers before surrendering to police. Almost two decades earlier, Columbine High School in Colorado, which saw the killing of 13, had an armed SRO and a security guard at the school. The shooting at Virginia Tech that followed a few years later, in which 32 people were killed, occurred on a campus with six police officers. In these and many other cases, the presence of police officers did not serve as a deterrent, nor did it save lives.

Although police presence in schools does not protect people from mass shooters, its effect is not neutral. The garrisoning of schools is disruptive to learning and community. Minority students are routinely victims of discriminatory over-policing. Although typically subconscious and implicit, racial bias among police officers remains a problem in law enforcement. Once embedded in schools, the police gaze is turned on the children, bringing biases from the outside inside the building. The logic of crime fighting shapes classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds. This is not a safe space for children and young adults.

There are two compounding types of over-policing: Police are more likely to target marginalized students for control and these students are more likely to attend schools with a significant police presence. Crucially, schools primarily made up of students of color are more likely to have police in them irrespective of whether their community is a high crime area. Law enforcement officers, with implicit racial and class biases in tow, bring their prejudices inside the school building.

Cops also bring something else. As Jerome Skolnick found in preparing his 1966 landmark Justice Without Trial, the working personality of the police officer tends toward the authoritarian: defensive, judgmental and suspicious. This character embodies the logic of crime control (over and against justice) and shapes human interactions in the classroom, hallway and playground.

Although public school shootings are statistically rare in the US, the presence of armed officers, as well as target hardening and surveillance, make the school feel like a dangerous place, manufacturing this perception unjustly engenders and deepens feelings of personal insecurity.Active-shooter drills condition fear in students, compromising what should be a relatively stress-free learning environment. Fear finds kids ruminating over how they will survive the unlikely. Additionally, highly realistic active-shooter drills can provoke the same physiological response in children as real emergencies. Kids have trouble learning new skills when anxious, but their bodies learn danger with ease. Further, teachers are pulled into the practice of threat assessment, shifting attention from students as learners to students as threats to personal safety. Meanwhile, those with bad intentions can simply plan around all this.

Instead of controlling guns like every other rational democratic country, communities are asked to model their schools after the garrison, generating profit for weapons and security firms. The majority is asked to compromise its freedom so that a well-organized minority can possess weapons designed for use on people, and the state can respond with extraordinary security measures. However, at its core, the demand for more armed officers in our schools is not merely a symptom of government failure to stand up to the gun lobby; it is the result of a convergence of powerful interests. 

Cops in schools neither makes schools safe nor facilitates education. The socialization of danger fosters a sense of insecurity and hopelessness, a mood on which authoritarianism thrives.

See also:

Police in schools does not make them safer, Green Bay Press Gazette, June 8, 2018

How Garrisoning Schools With Armed Resource Officers Normalizes Authoritarianism, Truthout, June 14, 2018


Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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