In Philadelphia, school police outnumber counselors

Large police forces and small counseling staffs correlate with poverty and race in the nation's largest school districts

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Notebook is one of 15 news organizations in the Philadelphia Reentry Reporting Collaborative, a solutions-oriented journalism initiative focusing on the challenges of prisoner reentry.

Like most large school districts in areas with high poverty rates and a majority Black and Latino residents, Philadelphia has more school police officers than counselors.

Wealthier and whiter large districts, by contrast, invest more in counselors than in security.

Last year an analysis of data from the 10 largest public school districts in the country by the website The 74 million found that four of those districts employ more police officers than counselors.

When that data is compared with U.S. census data on the poverty rates and racial makeup of each district’s catchment area, a pattern emerges: large school districts in areas with high poverty rates and high portions of minority residents are more likely to rely on relatively large school police forces, and have smaller counseling staffs.

This is so even though studies make clear that students who have suffered from trauma—most common in high-poverty districts—are more likely to benefit from counseling and support than punitive measures.

While Philadelphia was not quite big enough to be included in the study by The 74, data on the District’s website shows that it follows the trend, although its ratio of counselors to police is not as low as in some other cities.

More affluent large districts with higher portions of white residents seem most likely to employ ample counselors and low numbers of school police.

Aaron Kupchik, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware, said he used a nationally representative sample of schools and found “schools with higher levels of disadvantage are more likely to have police officers.”

“Poorly funded schools are less likely to have counselors, but there always seems to be money for security staff,” Kupchik said. “It’s a shame we don’t also seem to have a ready supply of money for mental health needs.”

In a district with more than 134,000 students, as of January Philadelphia has 284 counselors compared to 351 police officers.

Greg Windle, data from The 74
Data from the National Survey of Children’s Health shows that the lower the income bracket of a child’s household, the more likely that child is to have lived through a traumatic experience. This applies to practically two thirds of children living in poverty.

So higher poverty areas inevitably have a larger portion of students in the most need of counselors, but census data suggests they are the districts with the smallest counseling staffs.

Policing poverty and race

The disparity can’t be explained by state law. Take a look at two counties in Florida: Broward County has the second highest portion of counselors compared to police officers, while Miami-Dade has the lowest.

The two counties are right next to each other, but differences between them are telling.

Miami-Dade is larger, with a poverty rate of 20.4 percent. It encompasses the city of Miami along with its southern suburbs. Like Philadelphia, the majority of its public school students are Black and Latino. Miami-Dade is only 14.4 percent white.

Broward County is just north of Miami-Dade, containing Miami’s northern suburbs around Fort Lauderdale. The poverty rate of 14.5 is just above the national average, and much lower than its southern neighbor. Broward county is also 65 percent white.

Greg Windle
Each of the five districts that employ at least twice as many counselors as police officers, highlighted in green, have catchment areas with poverty rates below 20 percent. The five districts employing significantly more police officers than counselors, highlighted in red, have catchment areas with poverty rates above 20 percent.

The census data also has racial implications. The five districts employing more police officers than counselors take students from a catchment area that is majority Black and Latino.

But almost none of the districts employing at least twice as many counselors than police have majority white populations. The situation with the sale of cheap medicine is a bit different. Instead, these are the districts where the population of white residents is closest in size to the combined population of black and Latino residents.

Greg Windle
In 2011 criminal justice professors Denise Gottfredson and Chongmin Na conducted a study examining the effects of school police. It used the U.S. Department of Education’s data from a random sample of 3,000 public schools.

The study found “no evidence suggesting that [school resource officers] or other sworn law-enforcement officers contribute to school safety.”

“To the contrary, more crimes involving weapons possession and drugs are recorded in schools that add police officers,” the study reads. “As schools increase their use of police officers, the percentage of crimes involving non-serious violent offenses that are reported to law enforcement increase.”

Kupchik used the example of a threatening note written on the bathroom wall. The school counselor might see that as a cry for help from an emotionally disturbed student.

“To a counselor that might be an opportunity,” to help a student, Kupchik said. “To a police officer that’s an opportunity to make an arrest.”

Access to counselors

The six most impoverished catchment areas are home to the five districts that employ more police than counselors. The exception is Los Angeles, which employs nearly equal numbers. They are also the districts that include the largest cities.

Four of the most impoverished districts do exceed the national average of counselors per capita—Philadelphia, Chicago, Miami-Dade and New York. But Los Angeles and Houston fall short of that average.

Philadelphia barely qualifies, and was below the national average until this school year when the district hired dozens more counselors.

Greg Windle, data from The 74
The five least impoverished catchment areas—Hawaii, Hillsborough, Orange, Broward, and Clarke counties—have districts that employ more counselors than police officers.

Large districts with higher poverty rates seem less likely to employ the average number of counselors, and more likely to employ a relatively large number of police officers.

Unequal funding

Some disparities among large districts may reflect different levels of funding.

For example, New York City employs both more police and more counselors, per capita, than Philadelphia. While Philadelphia spent $12,570 on each student in the 2013-14 school year, New York City’s collection of districts averaged $18,620 per student spending just one year earlier and appear to be better staffed.

Newly appointed SRC commissioner Christopher McGinley said Philadelphia saw the number of counselors shrink under former Governor Tom Corbett’s cuts to public education, which also reduced support staff like non-teaching-assistants who helped supervise students throughout the day. That made the existing school police officers all the more necessary.

McGinley, who has served as superintendent in the Philadelphia suburbs of Lower Merion and Cheltenham, added that despite recently hiring more counselors, the District is still “not at an optimal ratio” of students to counselors, and should continue hiring in coming years.

Other districts, like Clark County, seem to be hiring a smaller number of police and counselors in total compared to Philadelphia.

This is also likely the result of funding. Clark County’s per pupil spending was $9,322 in 2011, several thousand dollars lower than Philadelphia’s. But Clark still manages to employ roughly the same number of counselors per capita as Philadelphia.

It may be because Clark County employs so few police officers that they are able to afford so many counselors.

Trauma correlates with poverty

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network distributes a free Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators—a report that both provides information about students coping with trauma, and suggests solutions for teachers.

The toolkit’s recommendation for helping these children is almost a word-for-word description of a school counselor’s office:

“Provide a safe place for the child to talk about what happened. Set aside a designated time and place for sharing to help the child know it is okay to talk about what happened.”

Students suffering from trauma need access to a counselor, and populations of students that are disproportionately likely to suffer from traumatic experiences—impoverished populations—are in the most need of counselors in their schools.

Unfortunately, these seem to be the very school districts that are least likely to employ a large counseling staff, and most likely to rely on a large school police force.

The effects of a district’s policies

Michael Nash, a juvenile court judge in Los Angeles, told the New York Times that school police often handle relatively minor acts of school discipline that would normally result in detentions or suspension, by charging students with misdemeanors like disorderly conduct or assault.

“You have to differentiate the security issue and the discipline issue,” Nash said. “Once the kids get involved in the court system, it’s a slippery slope downhill.”

Gottfredson and Na’s 2011 study on the effects of school police found 76 percent of principals reported that their school police officers were involved in “maintaining school discipline.”

But the more revealing data is in the rate at which these minor offenses are referred to law enforcement who can potentially make an arrest—as opposed to letting the school administrators handle it without pressing criminal charges.

Chongmin Na & Denise C. Gottfredson
The study found that in schools with law enforcement, “discipline responsibilities tend to be shifted away from teachers, administrators, and other school staff to the [school police officers].”

On average, the data shows a 12 percent increase in reporting “non-serious violent crime” in schools with police officers compared to those without.

“The presence of an officer in the school is associated with more than a doubling of the rate of referrals to law enforcement for the most common crime perpetrated by students in schools—simple assault without a weapon.”

In 2014 the Philadelphia School District implemented a “delinquency diversion program” to provide alternatives to arrest for students accused of minor or first-time offenses. In the first year of the program, student arrests dropped by 54 percent and There were 1,051 fewer behavioral incidents reported in the District.

Still, some police-student interactions drew attention. Last May a student at Benjamin Franklin high school was physically restrained by a school police officer in the hallway after an argument between the student and the officer.

The student was trying to use the boy’s restroom when he was stopped by the officer. He did not have the appropriate bathroom pass to use that restroom, so the officer blocked his way and the argument ensued. The District has not pursued criminal charges against the student.

McGinley said that the primary concern of school police should be the security of the building, and they should only enter classrooms “in an emergency.” He added that police should never be used to confront problems with “student behavior.”

“You have to be really clear about the goals and functions of the school’s staff and the roles and functions of the school’s police,” McGinley said. Kupchik said the same thing.

A 2011 study by the Justice Policy Institute, using data from the U.S. Department of Justice, found that “there is no clear correlation between rates of theft or violence and the number of school police.”

Nationally, the study found that numbers of school police reached their peak in 2003. By 2007 there were fewer police in schools, yet that year had the “lowest levels of student-reported incidents of theft and violence since 1997.”

The District has been decreasing the number of police officers in recent years—in the 2009 it employed 455 school police officers, compared to 359 at the beginning of this school year.

One of the more startling findings of Gottfredson and Na’s study was that rates of crime being recorded actually increased in nearly every category in schools with police.

The study concluded that the primary causes of this were that “police officers may increase the accuracy of school records of these crimes, or they may redefine ambiguous situations to conform to legal definitions of weapon or substance possession.”

However, the study also offered another minor contributing factor since school police officers reported spending 25 percent of their time counseling or mentoring students:

“Counseling services provided by the police may be, on average, less effective than those provided by trained counselors,” the study reads. “By shifting responsibility for counseling troubled youth to police, problems may be exacerbated rather than resolved.”

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released a study in 2014, which found the use of school police, and harsh disciplinary tactics in general, disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities.

The study found that while African American students comprised 16 percent of U.S. public school students, “they represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest.”

The study found that African American students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students.

A 2016 study from the International Journal of Health Services found that minorities in need of mental health services are less likely to receive treatment than their white counterparts.

“We found particularly low mental health utilization rates among the groups at highest risk for incarceration: black and Hispanic young men,” the study reads. “An extraordinary number of inmates—at least half, according to a Department of Justice report—suffer from mental illness.”

“Prisons and jails have become de facto mental institutions,” the study concludes.

In Philadelphia, a majority African-American school district where 38 percent of children live in poverty and black students are three times more likely to face expulsion than white students, there is a dire need for more counselors.

Without them, the children who need the most attention from a counselor are likely to get it from a police officer instead.