“How do we expect students to feel if they see someone with a gun and a bulletproof vest (on campus)? Do you expect them to feel happy?”
Nikki Smith asked an audience Wednesday to think about how things look from the eyes of a grade school or high school student. She was one of about 16 participants in a regular weekly discussion event at MU’s College of Education.
Hosted by The Bridge, a College of Education program designed to increase diversity, inclusion and equity in and on MU’s campus, “Wednesday Wonderings” offers students and university staff an opportunity to exchange and re-examine their ideas on various issues. At this week’s meeting in Townsend Hall, the talk was about the “school-to-prison pipeline.” It’s “currently a hot topic in the news in the Columbia community,” said Theresa Solis Metz, the MU College of Education’s director of diversity and inclusion and the host of the event.
The phrase refers to what advocates say is the mishandling of troubled children by institutions that punish instead of counsel them, setting up a cycle of failure that ultimately puts many of them in the criminal justice system. Smith, who was working on a class presentation about the school-to-prison pipeline, said she found research indicating that police at schools lead to more arrests. She argued that students who get suspended will end up feeling neglected and unappreciated in schools, leading to them being reluctant to go back.
Metz raised two main questions for the discussion:
What should the relationship between police and schools look like?
What are the responsibilities of school staff and administration in mitigating the school-to-prison pipeline?
Participants began by talking in small groups about their own feelings on the police presence in the grade schools and high schools they attended.
“I am from an all-white, conservative town of 3,000 residents,” said Smith, “and there is only one resource officer.”
Smith said students in her town don’t pay much attention to the resource officer.
Metz raised the numbers of school resource officers, as police assigned to schools are known, in Columbia public schools.
According to the Columbia Police Department, there are three school resources officers assigned to Columbia’s three comprehensive high schools: Hickman, Rock Bridge and Battle. Each has well over 1,000 students; the enrollment at Rock Bridge tops 2,000.
Only one officer covers all six of Columbia’s public middle schools, which have a combined student population of more than 4,000. The school resource officer for those schools, Tony Ash, is facing discipline for wrongfully arresting a student of color in Smithton Middle School in January.
A number of people at the “Wednesday Wonderings” expressed concern that the number of police officers in Columbia’s schools is insufficient.
Others in the group felt differently. Two black students who said they went to large high schools outside of Columbia had negative memories of the police they encountered there. They said the officers only interacted with them when incidents occurred. And the police had an intimidating image, wearing uniforms, bulletproof vests and weapons.
Metz also noted the racial disparity in rates of students being suspended was high in Columbia. Students of color are more likely to receive a suspension than white students.
At the end of the hour, the two questions Metz had posed were far from answered. But she offered a summary of what the group had learned.
“All behavior is a form of communication,” Metz said. “If we treat behavior as something we need to control, (we will) miss the opportunity to understand and listen to what needs to be communicated.”