Last week, the District 200 school board voted to remove school resource officers from Oak Park and River Forest High School. As of this writing, on Monday evening, District 97 was considering a similar action. The recent movement got me thinking about how police ended up in schools in the first place. And as with much else in this country, the origins involve race. 

“As de jure forms of segregation were dismantled by the efforts of civil rights leaders, white residents turned to violence and vandalism, which spilled over into newly integrating schools,” according to a 2017 report on the origins of school resource officers authored by the American Civil Liberties Union. “In 1948, the Los Angeles School Police Department had its genesis as a security unit designed to patrol schools in increasingly integrated neighborhoods.”

In 1957, William Jansen, New York City’s Superintendent of Schools, “condemned as unthinkable a grand jury recommendation that a uniformed city policeman be assigned to every public school in the city,” according to a New York Times article published at the time. 

The proposal was made by “a special grand jury investigating lawlessness in public schools in Brooklyn,” which had asked police to “‘patrol the corridors, the stairways and the recreation yards’ of schools throughout the city to help prevent outbreaks of violence.”

By 1967, the ACLU wrote, “fictionalized news reports published by local and national media demonized young people of color as ‘roving bands of Negro youth taking over certain areas and terroriz[ing] residents’ and maintaining ‘continual youth warfare.'” 

As Black students tried finding their footing in educational spaces that were either separate and unequal, or racially hostile, public officials blamed them for deteriorating schools and “suggested that a closer relationship between schools and law enforcement would result in student accountability.'”

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, school officials, politicians and law enforcement authorities expanded police presence in schools, which corresponded with “a broader shift toward viewing youth through the lens of criminal justice,” with Black and Brown young people classified as “delinquent” or “potentially delinquent.” 

The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 offered federal grants through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration in order to encourage the implementation of programs that prodded young people to have “respect for law and order,” which is how Congress put it at the time. 

President Richard M. Nixon’s “War on Drugs” would amplify the law-and-order message and treat schools in Black and Brown communities as extensions of the drug-infested streets. Police would pose as high school students, gathering intelligence in order to conduct various enforcement measures like tactical raids on minority students suspected of possessing marijuana. 

By the 1980s, according to sociologist Christian Parenti, poor Black and Brown New York City students had mastered “an unofficial, unacknowledged curriculum on how to be searched, scanned, ID’d, detained, interrogated, and expelled.”

In the 1990s, the school resource officer program had evolved and smoothed some of its rough edges, thanks in large part to the Justice Department’s “Cops in Schools” program, which “gave out $750 million to hire 6,500 new school-based police,” according to sociologist Alex S. Vitale.

In 1999, the Columbine High School shooting happened, which prompted more calls for police in schools to ostensibly prevent more school shootings from happening. Of course, more shootings have nonetheless happened. 

That reality, however, doesn’t take away from the fact that many cops in schools have “worked hard to maintain a safe environment for students” and “act as mentors and advisors,” Vitale writes. They have become, in many instances, guidance counselors with guns and bullet-proof vests. 

And this is where things get slippery, because if I go down this very reasonable, technocratic path any further, I start becoming dangerously complacent in Orwellian territory, where nice, smiling school resource officers are not the police; and where the notion of juvenile delinquency, formed by racist hysteria and in reaction to Blacks asserting their rights to live and learn, is not why police are in schools in the first place.

It takes Paul Goodman, that classic New York City mensch, to keep me appropriately maladjusted.

Delinquent youth, Goodman wrote in 1956, are “not taken seriously as existing, as having, like oneself, real aims in a real world.” Instead, they are a “problem” and “the emphasis is on their ‘background conditions,’ which one can manipulate; they are said to be subject to ‘tensions’ that one can alleviate.

“The aim is not to give human beings real goals that warrant belief, and tasks to share in, but to re-establish ‘belonging,’ although this kind of speech and thought is precisely calculated to avoid contact and so makes belonging impossible. When such efforts don’t work, one finally takes some of the [youths] seriously as existing and uses force to make them not exist.” 

The problem, then as now, is society, not the youth — a society, Goodman wrote, “lacking in honest public speech” and “the opportunity to be useful,” that “thwarts aptitude and creates stupidity” and “corrupts ingenious patriotism” and “corrupts the fine arts” and “shackles science,” that “has no Honor” and “no Community.” 

Our schools, institutions designed to reproduce this society, too often reflect the worst of its values. And no degree of community policing will correct this flaw — only true education can do that.

Join the discussion on social media!