Student Voice Project: Policy-Informed Research on Youth Perceptions of the Baltimore City School Police Force

Logo for the Student Voice Project

In response to increases in juvenile violence and high-profile school shootings during the 1990s, the United States has seen increased implementation of policies and practices intended to improve the safety and well-being of students (Fader, Lockwood, Schall & Stokes, 2015). However, some argue that these policies perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline and the criminalization of youth behavior, particularly among youth of color (Harvard Law Review, 2015). One of the popular interventions that came about in response to these events was the creation of school resource officers (SROs), programs that assign uniformed police officers to public schools (Bracey, 2010). In Maryland, a statute specifically provides a “Baltimore City School Police Force,” which is comprised of police officers trained through the Maryland Police Training Commission and the Civil Service Commission of Baltimore City (Council of State Governments Justice Center, 2014). On March 31, 2015, Baltimore City school officials outlined sweeping changes to how Baltimore’s School Police Force operates. Also, at this time, the death of Freddie Gray in April 2015 while in police custody sparked local and national outrage, highlighting once again issues of police brutality against communities of color. While many perspectives were shared in the current public debate in Baltimore City, including those of parents, teachers, advocates, and police officials and leaders, the voice of youth went unsolicited by relevant stakeholders. In light of this debate and the highly publicized unrest involving youth in Baltimore City following the death of Freddie Gray, the question of the state of police-student relationships was and remains particularly salient.

Our team, which is comprised of graduate students in the clinical and community psychology program and sociology/psychology faculty members at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), applied for and received the 2015-2016 SCRA policy mini-grant to solicit students’ perspectives of school police in Baltimore City public high schools. Our project, which we entitled, ‘The Student Voice Project,’ sought to highlight how students’ perspectives could shape local policy related to school police in Baltimore City.

We collected data via focus groups to explore student-reported perceptions of interactions with the Baltimore City School Police Force. Our research team conducted a series of 18 focus groups (N = 83), which included between two and eight participants in each group, from April 2016 to March 2017. Participants were students from Baltimore City Public High Schools and ranged in age from 14 to 20 years old (M = 16.6, SD = 1.16). Among the participants, the majority identified as female (71%) and Black/African American (67%). Focus groups were conducted at community locations (e.g., public libraries, recreational centers, youth organizations) close to the respective schools that students attended as well as in the schools themselves (e.g., school libraries). Focus groups lasted between 1-2 hours and were facilitated by two trained psychology graduate students. The discussion guide was developed to promote conversation around several topics on school police, such as perceptions and interactions with school police and suggestions for improving relationships. Throughout various stages of The Student Voice Project, efforts were made to collaborate with local youth advocacy and other community organizations, which will be discussed in further detail below.

Our findings showed that student perceptions of their school police officers ranged from positive, to neutral, to negative. Positive attitudes were attributed to school police officers that participated as members of the school community through their actions to build relationships and engage with students. Students believed that these officers provided a sense of protection through their support, as well as their ability to de-escalate fights. This finding is consistent with previous research, which found that police officers that were viewed as likeable and a valuable resource to the school were viewed more positively (Bracy, 2011). Students that held neutral perspectives described police as being uninvolved in their lives at school, which also corresponds with previous studies (Hopkins et al., 1992; Bosworth, Ford, & Hernandez, 2011). In addition, students who had negative perceptions attributed it to school police officers that engaged in aggressive ways. For example, students reported the use of fear, intimidation, surveillance strategies, and weapons (e.g., guns, pepper spray) to control them. Several students also expressed concern that their school police officers lacked awareness on how to appropriately interact with youth. This is consistent with findings from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)’s study of 1,000 New York City public school students, which found that 53% of students reported disrespectful, abusive, or uncomfortable treatment by school police officers (Mukherjee & Karpatkin, 2007). Students’ opinions of school police officers, however, did not exist in a vacuum. Rather, the school climate, including the sense safety, level of violence, relationships, and the role of teachers and administrators, shaped their perceptions (Cohen et al., 2009). Perceptions of police officers also related to school safety, or the perceived levels of student conflict (e.g. fights), and fear of outside threats. Specifically, students who perceived a higher level of student conflict or had greater fears of outside threats were more likely to endorse the perspective that school police officers were necessary. Perceptions of the need for school police officers related to the perceived ability to handle student conflict: school police were only necessary when teachers and administrators were incapable of resolving student fights.

Overall, students offered opinions on ways in which school police officers can build trust and improve relationships with students. These small, but potentially impactful acts include, being more involved in the school community (e.g., attending sport games), getting to actually know students outside of disciplinary interactions only, and using de-escalation tactics as opposed to excessive force. There also was a consistent theme that students wanted police officers to remember that they are just that–students, children, and not adults. Overall, the students expressed a desire to be treated with compassion and understanding, not like criminals.

The final phase of our project focused on the dissemination of our findings, beginning in the Fall of 2016 and continues currently, to our various Baltimore City community stakeholders and partners, as well as academic communities. Key community stakeholders included youth advocacy organizations, youth and adults within the Baltimore City Public School System, and other community organizations. Dissemination was carried out in multiple ways via creation and disbursement of policy briefs, meetings with youth and community organizations, and development of a website (https://baltimorestudentvoice.weebly.com/) and project logo.

In phase one of our dissemination plan, we met with youth organizations to see how our findings resonated with them and their experiences. Beyond reviewing the findings, we also gathered youth input on development of policy recommendations on local and state levels. These meetings were incredibly helpful not only to further make sense of our findings, but also to once again gain youth input into the various factors that impact youth-police relationships inside and outside of the school. Among these factors, students highlighted how systems of privilege and oppression maintain the disparities in treatment of White versus Black and Latinx students, especially in Baltimore City. They believed that police officer trainings should incorporate knowledge of these racial disparities and systems of oppression, while others stated that teachers were more equipped to handle issues within the school and so the presence of police was unnecessary and harmful. Youth feedback was critical in shaping the overall findings of this project and the language we used in the creation of fact sheets and policy briefs.

The second phase of dissemination focused on sharing our findings with other community organizations/partners and stakeholders, which included organizations such as the Center for School Mental Health in Baltimore City and the ACLU of Maryland. As word spread about our project, we were also asked to share our findings with other organizations. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund asked us to share our findings specific to Black girls as they were compiling a report on the disparities in school discipline, arrests, and referrals to the juvenile justice system for Black girls. Our findings, among many others, were then added to their final report, entitled, ‘Our Girls, Our Future: Investing in Opportunity and Reducing Reliance on the Criminal Justice System in Baltimore,’ which can be accessed here: http://www.naacpldf.org/files/case_issue/Baltimore_Girls_Report_FINAL_6_26_18.pdf.

Currently, we are in our final stage of dissemination, where we have shifted our efforts to advocacy on the local and statewide level. Our team has shared our findings with a statewide advocacy group, the Maryland Coalition to Reform School Discipline, which aims to address disparities in discipline practices. Per their request, we are in the process of compiling a formal report to distribute to their members, who may use the report as part of their effort to address Baltimore’s newly formed policy on school police. More broadly, our team is tracking statewide legislation related to school police and school discipline, which will inform our advocacy efforts in Maryland. We are grateful to the SCRA policy mini-grants program for providing us with the funding and support to conduct this project and gain youth voice on this important social justice issue in Baltimore City.

References
Bosworth, K., Ford, L., & Hernandez, D. (2011). School climate factors contributing to student and faculty perceptions of safety in select Arizona schools. Journal of School Health, 81, 194-201.

Bracy, N. L. (2011). Student perceptions of high-security school environments. Youth & Society, 43, 365-395.

Cohen, J., McCabe, E. M., Michelli, N. M., & Pickeral, T. (2009). School climate: Research, policy, practice, and teacher education. Teachers College Record, 111, 180-213.

Council of State Governments Justice Center. (2014). Officers in schools: A snapshot of
legislative action. Retrieved from http://csgjusticecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/NCSL-School-Police-Brief.pdf.

Fader, J. J., Lockwood, B., Schall, V. L., & Stokes, B. (2015). A Promising Approach to Narrowing the School-to-Prison Pipeline: The WISE Arrest Diversion Program. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 13, 123-142.

Harvard Law Review. (2015). Policing students,128. Retrieved from http://harvardlawreview.
org/2015/04/policing-students/.

Hopkins, N., Hewstone, M., & Hantzi, A. (1992). Police-schools liaison and young people’s image of the police: An intervention evaluation. British Journal of Psychology, 83, 203-220. Mukherjee, E., & Karpatkin, M. (2007). Criminalizing the classroom: The over-policing of New York City schools. New York Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved from: http://www.aclu.org.

Mukherjee, E., & Karpatkin, M. (2007). Criminalizing the classroom: The over-policing of New York City schools. New York Civil Liberties Union. Retrieved from: http://www.aclu.org.

Written by Lindsay Emery, Patricia Ferguson, Natasha Link, Taylor Darden and Loren Henderson; Edited by Taylor Scott

Re-printed from The Community Psychologist Vol 54 (4) Fall 2018