The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS) SRO op ed

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS Louisville) joins with the Louisville community—including our police chief—in grieving with and for the family of Tyree Smith, who was shot and killed recently at his school bus stop in West Louisville.

We all want every school—and every bus stop– to be a safe zone for students and staff. Thankfully, national data confirm that at least the schools themselves are already the safest place in the daily lives of many of our students.

In response to the shooting, though, Chief Shields repeatedly said that the LMPD lacks critical intelligence about incidents such as this because there are no longer school resource officers (SROs) in the schools. She wants SROs on all JCPS campuses. That means a JCPS school police force of possibly 155 officers, large enough to be among the top 5% biggest local police forces in the country.

Her statements add fuel to an already heated national and local debate about community safety. Do we invest in more ”Counselors or Cops”? We believe the answer is counselors. So, apparently, do the 57 percent of Kentucky’s schools that currently have no SROs, despite state law requiring them when funding and personnel are available.

Gathering information about potential crime in our community is important. When Chief Shields first arrived, she said “I commit to begin my work here with a focus on rebuilding community trust…trust that I believe was already eroding prior to Breonna Taylor’s killing.” We agree with that focus on the community and urge that–rather than focusing on officers in schools–she instead might direct a similar number of LMPD police officers to leave their cars for part of their shifts and walk and talk with residents, young and old. With more trust comes more sharing.

AROS also agrees with Chief Shields’ past statements that we cannot just arrest ourselves out of the violence in our community. However, some in the community see district-wide SROs as a solution to a separate problem—controlling students that teachers and administrators may not currently feel able to handle. Unfortunately, national research shows that–in majority minority districts like JCPS–SROs have seen part of their job as disciplining and controlling students of color. Our students of color have experienced this. In school year (SY)16-17, SROs in JCPS were involved in resolving behavior incidents involving black students at a rate 3.8 times higher than with white students. Arrest rates for black students were 4.9 times higher than for white students. This is the school to prison pipeline.

It should not be surprising then that national studies have found that students of color disproportionately report feeling as though SROs are there to protect the school from them. Students’ lack of connectedness extended to no longer seeing teachers as caring adults. With less trust—in this case of the teachers of a school with an SRO– comes less sharing.

Policing—whether in neighborhoods or in schools– has an academic impact well beyond that from the lost instructional time from arrests. Educational research confirms that a sense of connectedness—belonging– is also key to student engagement and readiness to learn. Districts across the state and nation routinely track sense of belonging through annual surveys. For many marginalized students–particularly black males– studies indicate that the continuous presence of armed SROs in our schools can actually decreases their sense of safety and belonging. Studies in New York City, Chicago and Texas have found lower graduation rates, college admissions, and test scores when police contacts increased.

There is also an accountability issue. By our state law, JCPS has no real control over SROs. As sworn officers–armed and with the power to arrest—SROs cannot be stopped from arresting a student if the officer witnesses what he/she believes is criminal behavior, nor from calling in additional officers. JCPS staff cannot discipline an SRO. This lack of accountability also becomes entangled with liability when the student’s behavior is a manifestation of a known physical, mental or emotional disability.

So, what are the alternatives? We all must take action to address the growing violence in our community—but viewed through a lens as a public health issue (as CDC does), a gun control issue and, ultimately, a product of unjust, generational poverty. Our entire community, including the police, needs to approach the work through these lenses. JCPS’ core piece of this long-term violence reduction work is to engage students and to equitably provide the skills and knowledge for a path way beyond poverty.

That’s difficult enough, given all the challenges for our student and teachers. However, JCPS is working at it. Properly trained teachers, social workers, mental health professionals, administrators and counselors are modeling, shaping, and correcting student behavior issues—even serious ones. JCPS is also working to address what’s happened in the lives of their students. It has expanded socio-emotional training, trained almost all elementary schools in restorative practices, and trained safe crisis management teams and trauma-informed care teams at every school. When additional support is needed, the unarmed JCPS security and investigations team can be called in to support serious, potentially criminal behaviors.

JCPS absolutely still falls short in guaranteeing equitable treatment of all students. That is due in significant .part to also falling short of adequate professional staffing for these programs as well as the additional staff needed for proactively identifying and addressing students’ problems–including trauma from poverty, crime and pandemic–before they flare up as behaviors. There simply aren’t enough staff in the schools to do it all.

We need more caring adults in our schools who look like our students and can be available to listen to them and respond. We need them now. Short-term answers might include contracted physical/mental health school clinics, like those in Paducah schools. Another community-based idea could be hiring caring adults– paid community members or parents who look like our students– acting as floating neighborhood ambassadors in classrooms, halls, or cafeterias. We need action.

JCPS can’t afford– or find– 155 SROs, nor would that help JCPS’ mission. By contrast, that mission –and the community—would greatly benefit by JCPS hiring at least that number of school-based mental health staff—school counselors who are not tied to college and career work, social workers, mental health professionals and psychologists who look like their students. Let’s hire Counselors, not Cops.

The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools ( an education justice coalition of six local organizations

Co-authors are:

Chris Harmer, Fellowship of Reconciliation and chair of AROS
Leslie Marcellino, Education committee chair of League of Women Voters of Louisville
Tyra Walker, co-chair of the Kentucky alliance against Racist and Political Repression