Politics & Policy

Don’t Like Police Officers in Public Schools? Blame Lousy Parents

(Mario Tama/Getty)

The cycle of cultural hand-wringing moves fast indeed. Within 48 hours of rushing to judgment against a student resource officer in Columbia, S.C., Senior Deputy Ben Fields, for forcibly removing a young black girl from her seat after she refused demands from a teacher and administrator to leave class and then apparently hit Fields in the face when he first attempted to move her, the Left is using this incident to make a larger point about the problematic presence of police officers in public schools.

As I noted yesterday, Vox posted a widely read article saying the video “shows what happens when you put cops in schools” and called it an example of the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie wrote a piece detailing the dramatic increase in the police presence in public schools, the much higher arrest rates when officers are present (which should surprise precisely no one), and the disproportionate impact on black youth.

Let’s begin with a point of agreement: Ideally, no one wants cops in schools.

A law-enforcement presence, by its very nature, introduces criminal law and criminal penalties into the kinds of altercations and disruptions that used to be dealt with entirely through in-house school and parental disciplinary processes. I still vividly remember the day when my father grabbed me by the arm — after receiving a note from my teacher that I’d been involved in a fight with the same kid on consecutive days — marched me over to the kid’s house, and then hashed it all out with his father, man-to-man. The dads agreed the fighting had to stop, pledged to punish us more severely than the school ever would, and — suddenly — peace reigned on the playground.

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But in all too many public schools, parental involvement simply isn’t an option. As one inner-city public school teacher told me, in her first four years of teaching elementary school, she could count the number of intact, mother–father households on the fingers of one hand — and those parents weren’t even married. Very few parents bother to show up for parent/teacher conferences, and the interactions are often dominated by angry threats to sue for various perceived slights. Lousy parenting leads to horrific, often violent child behavior — and even seasoned teachers can be shocked and frightened when classroom incidents spiral out of control.

#share#Against the backdrop of a litigious culture, teachers feel hamstrung. Teachers and administrators are limited in their ability to place any physical restraint on unruly students, and when calling mom (dad typically isn’t around) isn’t a productive option, they can quickly find themselves helpless in their own classrooms. In such circumstances, zero-tolerance — as maddening as it is — starts to make sense. If teachers can’t handle significant discipline problems, then they should punish before escalation — suspend before violence.

Yet all of this represents the government schools’ inadequate attempt to respond to a problem that it simply can’t fix: the breakdown of the family and its horrific and lasting effect on young kids.

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Just as I can vividly remember what it’s like to have parents fix school-discipline problems, I can also remember the moment in my high school when the police took control. A fight broke out during my senior year, a brawl so violent that teachers — even football coaches — were knocked to the ground and thrown against lockers. Students scrambling to get out of the way slipped on the bloody floors, and chaos reigned until first the sheriff and then the state police arrived in force. For the next week, we walked the halls with police officers in every corridor, and we were grateful for their presence.

When I see a police officer in a public school, I don’t see oppression, I see a symptom of a cultural disease, a crisis of morality and responsibility.

When the family dies, public schools in troubled neighborhoods are often forced to pick their poison: Do you accept the risk of student disruption and violence by shunning zero-tolerance and rejecting a police presence? Or do you accept the near-certainty of more arrests and the “school-to-prison pipeline” of in-school law enforcement? There are simply no good answers, and that’s why the savvy parents — the parents who actually care — are so desperate for educational options, for the charter schools and private schools that tend to be populated by educators and parents who cooperate to impose sensible discipline, don’t need state rescue from violence, and work in partnership to educate their children.

When I see a police officer in a public school, I don’t see oppression, I see a symptom of a cultural disease, a crisis of morality and responsibility. The state is semi-competent at imposing order. It cannot, however, repair the family. Yet until the family is repaired, the police will likely stay. Parents have damaged their children, and someone needs to protect the innocent from harm.

David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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