Changes to School Police—More Than Symbolic?

What Past School Discipline Reform Suggests About Racial Disparities and Exclusion

by Kathryn Wiley, Faculty Fellow, School of Education University of Colorado Boulder and Yolanda Anyon, Associate Professor, Graduate School of Social Work, University of Denver

Rhododendrites / CC BY-SA (

The police-free schools movement entered mainstream consciousness during the recent Summer 2020 Racial Justice Uprisings. This movement, rooted in generations of racial justice activists, advocates, and scholars, calls for replacing school police and surveillance systems with policies and programs that youth and families of color actually want within public schools. School boards responded in quick succession: as of August 2020, 40 districts have canceled or reduced police contracts with some pledging to divest resources into wellness-based initiatives.¹

What we have witnessed nationally attests to the strength of political organizing to ignite change. National coalitions like Dignity in Schools, the Alliance for Educational Justice, the Black Organizing Project in Oakland, Padres y Jóvenes Unidos in Denver, CADRE in South LA, Power U in Miami, the Center for Popular Democracy, and Urban Youth Collaborative in New York City have long led the way on police reform. These groups have used a variety of strategies, from proposing and elevating organizational demands to officials, to hosting school board “accountability” meetings, to social media campaigns targeting specific issues and policymakers.² These efforts have yielded victories against the school-to-prison pipeline,³ and recently in school law enforcement policy wins.

These wins are encouraging, but we are beginning to see that for some districts, these changes may be only symbolic. On June 2, 2020 the Minneapolis School Board voted unanimously to terminate its police contract with the Minneapolis Police Department for School Resource Officers. Four months later, according to a recent analysis of documents obtained by journalists, the district has hired 11 new “public safety support specialists” to function as school security, half of whom have a law enforcement, security or corrections background. As reported in The 74, said one Minneapolis finalist for the position, “It’s almost like they wanted police officers, but technically not police officers.”

In Denver, Colorado, despite removing nearly 20 police officers, the district retained a department of 100 campus security guards whose duties entail similar functions with less training and lower pay. These concerns suggest the need to examine what happens inside districts after the political pressure from the summer fades — will we see more instances of symbolic reform? Or will school policing, in its many forms, recede? We ask this as researchers who have studied school discipline reform first-hand for many years.

Looking at the history of out-of-school suspension reform offers insight, and suggests that changes to policing may not fundamentally eliminate racial disparities in school exclusion and that other discreet but exclusionary discipline practices will arise in its place.

There is ample evidence from decades of research showing that out-of-school suspension has a harmful impact that disproportionately affects students of color, particularly Black students.⁴ Generations of activism and advocacy brought national attention to the issue, and in 2014 the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, and the U.S. Department of Justice issued a resources package addressing the harms and racially biased nature of punitive discipline and encouraging educational agencies to use a range of alternatives, a position that has since been abandoned by the Trump Administration.

At least 25 states and numerous schools and districts have introduced or passed legislation limiting the use of suspension and expulsion, as well as encouraged alternative practices such as positive incentives, restorative justice, and supportive services.⁵ To some extent, these reforms have been successful.⁶ Nationally, suspension rates have declined by 20%.⁷ In specific states, results have also been positive. For example, in Arkansas, suspension rates for truancy dropped after a state level bill was passed prohibiting them.⁸ Individual districts have too seen good changes. In Denver, overall suspensions rates declined by 40% following district policy changes. In New York City Schools suspensions for low-level infractions declined following a city policy change.⁹ In Philadelphia, out-of-school suspensions declined for non-violent infractions after changes restricted their use.¹⁰ And, in Los Angeles, suspension rates also declined after changes in 2011.

From a historical perspective, this tidal change was not new. Rather, it mirrored earlier waves of school discipline reform. In the late 1970s, the education community responded to shifting public sentiment about the use of out-of-school suspension, particularly due to its adverse impact on Black students. In a move akin to the supportive federal climate for discipline reform found among the Obama administration, the Carter administration in 1977 even formed a Student Suspension Committee to reevaluate federal efforts to reduce out-of-school suspension. What did they find? Schools continued using methods of exclusion, albeit forms that kept students in school, confined to segregated in-school suspension classrooms and alternative education programs.¹¹ Simply put, reform in one area can simply shift inequities into another.

Evaluations of similar out-of-school suspension reforms from the 2000s found that exclusion persists. In Arkansas, suspensions for truancy continued, even three years after reform.¹² In New York City, despite reducing suspensions, they saw an increased likelihood that first-time suspended students would be suspended again.¹³ In Philadelphia, schools continued to use suspension in some schools for minor incidents despite a policy change limiting suspensions used for this very reason.¹⁴

In Los Angeles, overall suspensions declined the first two years following a policy change, but slowly began rebounding.¹⁵ Even court ordered changes do not necessarily upend punitive practices. As Brent¹⁶ found in his case study of a high school, exclusionary discipline continued to exist despite court-ordered mandates.

Further, despite out-of-school suspension reforms, Black students remain vulnerable to suspension despite reforms to reduce racial disparities. After Arkansas’ reform, schools with higher proportions of Black students were more likely to continue using out-of-school suspension for truancy.¹⁷ In New York, although suspensions declined for Black boys, Black girls were more likely to have a first-time suspension after the policy change.¹⁸

In Philadelphia, racial disparities remained relatively unchanged.¹⁹ In Denver, racial discipline gaps between Black and White students persisted despite district reforms²⁰ and in Los Angeles, suspension gaps between Black and white students continued post-reform.²¹ These findings suggest that although changing discipline policies can modify some of their usage, they do not necessarily eliminate certain practices altogether and they do not alone reduce racial disparities.²²

To further illustrate the shape-shifting nature of school exclusion, in a recent study we conducted, we found that in response to a district’s efforts to reduce out-of-school suspension—by all means an important policy change—the use of in-school suspension has been rising, impacting Black students, Latino students, and students with disabilities more than their White or able-bodied peers. Like the current moment, out-of-school suspension reforms were once heralded as a major step in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. And many district officials, as are now, spoke about implementing restorative justice as part of that reform. Our study took place in one such district. But, when we visited some schools, we found some restorative justice staff were responsible for supervising in-school suspension and detention rooms, not for doing restorative justice. In other words, the encouraging policy talk in the wake of out-of-school suspension reform didn’t quite translate into the inclusive educational environments we might have hoped. Instead, the very staff hired to implement positive change were now overseers of punishment.

We take this to mean that as policy shifts, so too does the school-to-prison pipeline along with it. We observed that although students were in school, they nonetheless lost hours of instructional time, and faced social marginalization and racial segregation. Other studies on in-schools suspension and detention have revealed similar patterns of racial disparities and identified negative impacts on academic and social outcomes.²³

Schools may be increasingly implementing exclusionary but in school discipline consequences, in part based on the belief that this practice is less harmful to students. We suggest caution as policymakers and education leaders consider the use of these strategies. Given that in-school discipline consequences still remove students from their regular classrooms, they likely break bonds between students and teachers, which could exacerbate challenging behavior and negative perceptions of school climate.²⁴ In fact, recent research challenges the notion that removing disciplined students from the classroom benefits their peers, as all students in schools with high rates of in-school suspension have worse academic outcomes than schools that use this consequence less frequently.²⁵ From a policy perspective, the turn to in-school alternatives has, in some places, supported symbolic change to suspension without fundamentally changing exclusion or racial disparities.

We do not suggest that policing reforms are misguided, rather, the public, which has been so powerfully mobilized by the police killings of Black women, children, and men, must continue to critically evaluate the educational practices in schools and be prepared for a long-term battle to win the full implementation required to ensure that policy change does not merely shapeshift to new forms of exclusion and marginalization.

From what we have witnessed over the last decade, we believe that schools will need steadfast community oversight and accountability mechanisms to ensure that practices like punitive, in-school suspension and classroom removal are prohibited even in the wake of positive discipline and policing reforms. Racism is structural and deeply woven into institutions. It is police and it is more than police. Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline will require eliminating the punitive culture that pervades this nation and daily dehumanizes students.

It will take well-funded and fully implemented supports prescribed by the communities most impacted and it will take a civically engaged public to hold officials accountable tomorrow for the promises voiced today.