Going behind the data: The impact of student involvement with law enforcement

View data from the US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, which shows racial disparities in student referrals to law enforcement and student arrests.

Last summer, after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, people in cities across the country rose up in protest against racism and violence against people of color. Amid this movement, school districts—first Minneapolis, then Portland, Oakland, Denver, and more–announced they would sever their contracts with the city police departments

These decisions stemmed from recognition of the role of police departments in the killings of Black and Brown people like George Floyd. But among organizers in cities across the US, removing police presence from schools has been the work of years. Their ongoing efforts focus on breaking down the direct line from school to prison that forms when students are referred to law enforcement from an early age, and investing funds in resources that improve students’ experience. Currently, the volume of young people involved with law enforcement is substantial: In 2019, 2,111 kids under 10, 26,303 kids aged 10 to 12, and 68,214 age 15 and under were arrested.

In a new dashboard, data from the US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) shows racial disparities in how frequently students are referred to law enforcement, and subsequently, how many students are arrested. Visualized by our partners at Civilytics and Lovelytics for the Racial Equity Data Hub, the school district-level data shows that in nearly all states, Black and Hispanic/LatinX students are referred to law enforcement and arrested at much higher rates than other demographic groups. Native American students are also referred and arrested disproportionately. White students are most likely to attend school in districts with no referrals to law enforcement or arrests.

CRDC dashboard

The effect of law enforcement presence on students of color

“Every student has the right to an education, but harsh school discipline policies are blocking students of color from achieving their full potential,” says Marc Philpart, managing director at PolicyLink and principal coordinator for their Alliance for Boys and Men of Color. “Every student needs and deserves dignity and support, but systemic racism in our schools means some students get support when they are struggling, while others get pushed out.” 

As we’ve seen from school districts like Minneapolis and Oakland, it is possible to create a future where students can progress through school without interacting with law enforcement. It is also important to recognize that it hasn’t always been this way. According to the American Civil Liberties Union in a report on trends in school discipline and support staff, only 1% of schools were patrolled by police in 1975. Since then, that number has ballooned. Now, 48% of all public schools have some kind of police presence, and students at schools that primarily serve Black or low-income students are more likely to encounter harsh security measures like contraband sweeps and metal detectors. 

There is little data to show that the significant increase in police presence since the 1970s has improved school safety. Instead, “research has indicated that having school-based police contributes to less inclusive school climates, and this makes students less safe,” the report notes

Studies have linked the presence of police in schools to declines in graduation and college enrollment rates, and negative impacts on the test scores of Black male students. Student referrals to law enforcement and arrests also correlate with disciplinary actions like suspensions or expulsions, which negatively impact a student’s ability to learn and progress in school. As you can see from the second dashboard on student grade retention, disciplinary actions also correlate with students being held back and having to repeat a year of school, which further disrupts their academic and social experiences. 

School boards set the course of disciplinary action for students: they decide if schools refer students to law enforcement or opt for more restorative, in-school interventions. Local data reflects the choice of school districts, as well as the avenues for change.

Data as a tool for disrupting the cycle

Data that clearly shows racial biases and disparities in student referrals to law enforcement, arrests, and suspension can be a powerful tool to drive change. “In order to address racial inequities that exist in our schools, we have to understand which students are being impacted by which policies--that requires collecting and reporting that data,” Philpart says.  

School districts are using data like those available through the CRDC to make real changes. For example, Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky, which refers an average of 2.83 students for every 1,000, has implemented a review process of every suspension and referral, and is beginning to see reductions in race-based disparities. District officials cite the data review process and efforts to invest more in student support resources as key elements in the progress. In response to data showing persistent racial disparities in harsh discipline, a coalition in Dallas is calling on the local school district to end student suspensions. Miguel Solis, a former board member for the Dallas Independent School District, who was instrumental in developing a policy that bans out-of-school suspensions for young students across Texas, says creating a more supportive climate in schools is essential. “We need to reimagine supports that are provided to students before a triggering event occurs, and we need a more creative use of data.” Solis points to the potential of data to help districtus understand stressors and risk factors for students, and guide their development of a more supportive in-school environment. 

PolicyLink is focused on advancing policies that can tangibly reduce bias and race-based disparities in school discipline, and also on using data to track their effects. In their research, they cite that in Oakland, where schools introduced restorative justice practices in 2010—a healing and reconciliation-based alternative to harsh disciplinary practices—suspensions have dropped by 30% for Black students, and 35% overall. 

“Parents and students are critical partners in developing solutions that seek to eliminate racial inequities and creating school climates that support all students and families,” Philpart says, noting that “data is critical in validating the solutions and alternative approaches that could positively impact these inequities.” 

Behind the data: An opportunity for more supportive in-school resources

Funding police presence in schools increases the likelihood that more severe and exclusionary disciplinary practices are used, which has long-term negative effects on students and their peers. It also often comes at the expense of investing in school counselors, psychologists, nurses, and social workers—who do positively impact students’ experiences in school. 

Another of ABMOC’s Los Angeles-based partners, the Brothers, Sons, Selves Coalition led an effort last year along with Students Deserve and Black Lives Matter Los Angeles to reinvest $25 million from the local school police budget in support like school counselors. Data shows significant racial disparities in referrals and arrests: From 2017 to 2018, LA reported that of the 425 students arrested after being referred to law enforcement, 91 were Black, and 23 were white. Advocates conducted a survey of students and found that 43% had experienced random searches, and 86% supported reducing police funding in favor of supportive programming. “This data was critical in showing Board Members the extent of the problem with policing of Black students, and the supportive services students want and need,” Philpart says.

The ACLU notes, over 90% of students attend schools with higher than recommended student-to-counselor ratios (an average of 444:1, compared with the recommended 250:1). Some states report as many as three times more police officers in school than social workers. However, school-based mental health providers actually are shown to improve school climate and safety, and produce positive outcomes for students, including: lower rates of expulsion, improved academic achievement, and higher graduation rates. 

As schools prepare to fully welcome students back for in-person instruction, researchers note that addressing racial disparities in disciplinary practices, particularly those that take students out of school, will be even more important. “When students finally do return to school, it will be imperative that educators are prepared to deal constructively with the impact the long absence will have had on students’ academic needs, and on their emotional health. Now more than ever, schools will have to seriously rethink using the denial of even more instruction as a punitive response to minor misbehaviors,” researchers at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project note. There is an opportunity for schools, in welcoming students back, to use their data to understand opportunities to create equity and justice, and implement changes that will create more supportive environments for students.

Dashboard Insights

Here are some examples of insights you might uncover as you do your own analysis with the dashboard.

Comparing states

  • States differ in how many of their school districts involve law enforcement in student discipline. Only 3% of school districts in Vermont had one or more student arrests. In contrast, in four states, more than half of school districts had one or more student arrests.
  • Nationally 57% of White (non-Hispanic) students attend a school district that did not arrest any students in 2017-18, compared to only 41% of Black students and 48% of Hispanic students. However, the picture varies greatly by state. Some states have few racial differences in the proportion of students attending a district with no arrests (e.g., Maryland, Nevada, South Carolina). Others, like Illinois and Massachusetts, have large racial differences in this metric, with White students being much more likely than Black or Hispanic students to attend a district with no student arrests.
  • White students in Massachusetts are much more likely to attend a district that didn’t arrest a single student than one that did. Over 80% of White students in MA attend a school district with no arrests. The picture is reversed for Black students in Massachusetts – they are more likely to attend a district that arrests at least one student than one that does not. 52% of Black students in Massachusetts attend a district that arrested at least one student in 2017-18.

Explore your state

  • Maryland, with one public school district per county, shows how much police involvement in schools can vary by district. For example, Somerset County Public Schools had 26 referrals to police per 1,000 students in 2017-18. In contrast, neighboring Worcester County Public Schools only reported 2 referrals to police per 1,000 students.
  • Comparing districts’ referral rates by sex is also illuminating. For example, Wicomico County Schools had 23 referrals of White female students, a rate of 7 police referrals per 1,000 White female students. In contrast, the school district had 132 referrals of Black female students, a rate 7 times higher (49 referrals per 1,000 students) than for White females.

District leaderboards

  • Both Los Angeles Unified School District and Chicago City Schools reported more than 1,000 police referrals for female Hispanic students in 2017-18. Referral numbers were even high for Hispanic male students. LAUSD reported over 2,500 referrals to police of male Hispanic students, while Chicago schools reported over 1,600.
  • Rates are always affected by small sample sizes, though this graph restricts the sample to districts with 25 or more students in the selected subgroup. It is telling, however, that many of the districts with the highest referral rates are those serving special education and struggling students, such as New Dominion Alternative Education Center, Four Rivers Special Education District, and the Austin Albert Lea Area Special Education Cooperative.
  • It is also striking that some large school districts seem to make the decision not to refer students to police. While some of these could reflect reporting errors for districts that did not comply with federal reporting requirements, it is striking that 15 or more districts with 30,000 or more students did not report referring any students to law enforcement.