Texas school districts continue to add their own police departments, but not everyone feels safe
Officials have called for more armed officers on campuses in the wake of the Uvalde shooting. Experts and some parents, though, say more law enforcement on campus doesn’t necessarily make schools safer.
In the 1980s, police officers were “almost nonexistent” in the Klein Independent School District north of Houston, according to David Kimberly, chief of the district’s police department.
There were only a few Harris County sheriff’s deputies on shift at any time during the day, he said, so it was difficult to get law enforcement to the rural district, which served a very small “pocket of communities.”
That’s why, in 1982, the school district “had the foresight” to create its own police department to respond to accidents and disturbances on school property, he said. It was one of the first, if not the first, police departments created by a school district in Texas, according to Kimberly.
Today, there are 309 school districts with their own internal police departments in Texas, according to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Since 2017, 99 of the 192 law enforcement agencies that have been created in Texas are school police departments, according to Michael Antu, deputy chief of the commission.
Thirty-two of those police departments were created in 2018 after the May shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston, when a gunman killed 10 people.
“School districts wanted more police officers,” Kimberly said. “They wanted more coverage, and they got into a deal where the sheriff or the city either couldn’t or wouldn’t provide.”
In the wake of Texas’ latest and deadliest school shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers last month, local and elected officials are calling for securing schools with more police.
Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz wants to place armed officers at a limited number of school entrances and a Dallas councilman wants to explore efforts to add officers to all campuses or create more school police departments.
Active-shooter training is a part of Texas’ core curriculum for basic police officer training, and it became a state mandate for officers stationed at schools in 2019 after the Santa Fe school shooting. Any officer regularly working in schools is required to complete active-shooter training as well as another course focused on topics such as child psychology, mental health intervention, de-escalation and working with children with special needs, said Bill Avera, police chief for the Jacksonville Independent School District and board member of the Texas School Safety Center.
But experts say there’s no guarantee that officers will follow their training while under fire, and some parents, students and educators warn the increased presence of police in schools doesn’t make them feel safe.
“As a Black woman who has a Black son in the school system, it just puts me on edge,” said Amber Joyce, a former teacher and middle school administrator in the South Plains.
In Uvalde, the school district police department had completed an active-shooter drill in March, but it took law enforcement more than an hour to stop the massacre after the school police chief entered the school without a key to automatic-locking classroom doors and without his communications radio.
Advocates for police-free schools point to the response by Uvalde school police as evidence that police do not make schools safer.
“If there is an emergency, a situation where there is violence, we certainly hope as we would in any other context, whether it’s a home or a restaurant or a grocery store, that the police would be called in swiftly and respond in an appropriate way. But that is different from having police officers in schools,” said Morgan Craven, national director of policy, advocacy and community engagement for the nonprofit Intercultural Development Research Association.
Officers on campus
The main difference between police officers who work for a school district’s own force and school resource officers employed by a local city or county law enforcement agency is who they report to, said Avera, the Jacksonville ISD police chief. Officers from another agency work with school leaders but continue to report to the outside agency, while school district police officers report to the district’s chief, who is overseen by the superintendent.
School district police officers mostly work on school grounds, but Avera said their jurisdiction extends over any district property and can be broader, depending on agreements with other law enforcement agencies.
In a 2017-2020 audit report from the Texas School Safety Center, 41% of 1,022 school districts reported contracting with another law enforcement agency, compared to about 32% of districts that reported employing their own police force.
As some local law enforcement agencies struggle with recruiting and staffing, it can prove easier and more affordable to secure schools with their own commissioned officers, Kimberly said.
In Fort Worth, the city’s police department provides school resource officers to five school districts through a 68-officer unit commanded by one lieutenant and five sergeants, according to Assistant Chief Joseph Sparrow.
Sparrow welcomes the idea of adding police officers to every campus, as some Texans have called for, but said it would be “a very ambitious endeavor.”
“It’s just not easy to add officers,” he said. “You have to recruit them, you have to train them.”
Kimberly, who is retiring from the Klein school district police department, said he’s already gotten calls from smaller school districts reconsidering their safety and whether to create their own police departments.
“I think that that’s going to be a big thing after Uvalde,” he said.
Concerns about policing at schools
Most research has shown that the presence of police in schools doesn’t improve safety and can lead to an increase in disciplinary actions such as suspensions, expulsions and arrests of students — especially for students with disabilities, students of color or those who are part of the LGBTQ community, said Craven, with IDRA.
“Consistently, it does not show that safety increases,” she said. “There’s some research that shows that there’s a neutral effect, and then there’s some research that shows that concerns about safety actually increase with the presence of school-based police officers.”
One study of school shootings from 1999 to 2018 found that the type of gun used by a shooter and their age could impact the severity of the incident, but the presence of a school resource officer did not lead to “significant differences.” Another study of federal grants for police in Texas schools from 1999 to 2008 found that such grants could be associated with an increased rate of disciplinary actions for middle school students and lower graduation rates for high school students.
Kimberly acknowledges that officers have historically been used by some schools as “disciplinarians” but said that, under a 2019 Texas law, they are not supposed to be involved in routine disciplinary actions and administrative tasks. He said his department spends a lot of time training on how to work with students with different needs and has taken training on implicit bias.
But integrating police in schools can lead educators to rely on school police to deal with students going through crises instead of addressing students’ needs, said Jolene Sanders-Foster, advocacy director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, pointing to the restraining of students in special education who have specific educational needs and plans.
“We know that restraints get overused,” she said. “It’s kind of like this knee-jerk reaction: ‘I have this tool in my toolbox, and I really just want this kid to stop screaming. I’m going to restrain the kid.’”
The Alliance for Educational Justice has documented almost 200 incidents of use of force or violence against students by school police across the country since 2007, including more than 20 in Texas.
Joyce, who oversaw sixth graders as a former assistant principal, said administrators have a lot of power over how discipline is conducted, but the mere presence of a school police officer can frighten students. She saw that firsthand on one occasion when she brought a school resource officer to help investigate an incident.
“I assumed that the students knew that I would never do anything that would put them in danger that would hurt them, that would make them feel unsafe,” she said. “And taking that resource officer with me, the student was terrified just seeing the officer there. And the student actually approached me later in tears crying and told me that that made them feel very unsafe.”
Some school districts have taken steps to address policing concerns with additional training and goals to decrease disproportionate disciplinary actions for students of color or with disabilities, including the Austin Independent School District, which has aimed to end student arrests. Andrew Hairston, Education Justice Project director for Texas Appleseed, said that’s a “laudable goal” but raises the question, “why do we need police at all in the school?”
Instead of investing in more police officers, Craven and other advocates would like to see Texas lawmakers and officials invest in more counseling and support staff for students.
Leaders of the Texas Legislature have pitched redirecting more than $100 million in state funding to quickly boost mental health and school safety programs before the fall semester, including $50 million to fund bulletproof vests for school police. But that wouldn’t address the adverse impacts school police are reported to have on students, Craven said.
“We can’t sacrifice the safety of children on a daily basis as we search for the ways to protect students from this horrific violence,” she said.