ACLU report: Schools short-staff mental health services while over-policing students

"This surge in police officers contributes to a biased application of discipline and over-criminalization of students of color and students with disabilities," the report said.

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

Updated 3/11 with statement from the School District of Philadelphia

A report from the ACLU found widespread understaffing of school-based mental health workers and a pervasive presence of police in schools, despite evidence that mental health staff members reduce violence in schools, while police do not. Yet in response to school shootings over the last 20 years, federal and state governments have largely been investing in more police – not more counselors, psychologists or social workers.

Black and Latinx students are arrested by school police at higher rates than white students. Black girls are four times more likely to be arrested than girls as a whole. In Pennsylvania, they are five times more likely to be arrested. Furthermore, police in schools with large numbers of students of color are significantly more likely to “have duties focused on maintaining school discipline.”

“No data indicates that police in schools improve either the students’ mental health, educational outcomes, or their safety — indeed, in many cases, they are causing harm,” stated the report, called Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff Is Harming Students. “When in schools, police do what they are trained to do — detain, handcuff, and arrest. This leads to greater student alienation and a poorer school climate.”

The ACLU found that “nearly half” of students who drop out of school struggle with mental health issues.

Yet roughly 80 percent of students in need of mental health services do not receive services in their communities. Of those who do receive services, the large majority are treated in their schools. Students are 21 times more likely to visit a school-based mental health service than a community mental health center, the report said.

The study used data from the federal Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.

Union leader calls for action

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), said the findings “underscore” some of the union’s priorities during the last contract negotiation. For instance, the union fought to restore support staff cut by the District in response to state budget cuts under former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.

“We fought to keep the language in the PFT contract that requires at least one full-time counselor in every school,” Jordan said in a statement. “The PFT also successfully proposed new contract language on restorative justice programs to deal with disciplinary issues, because educators understand that more ‘policing’ is not the way to make schools safer for students or staff.

“Here in Philadelphia, school safety has been negatively impacted by the elimination of [non-teaching assistants] and other non-teaching support staff who were on hand to identify and mitigate potential discipline issues before they become major problems. Our schools need more funding to restore these staff members, bring in more counselors and other programs that will meet our children’s personal issues and emotional needs.”

Ismael Jimenez is a history teacher at Kensington Creative & Performing Arts High School, a co-chair of the PFT’s Working Educator Caucus, and a member of a group that seeks to recruit and support black male educators. To him, reading the report’s findings was like “reading that water is wet.”

“Students feel like they’re guilty until proven innocent,” Jimenez said.

“It’s the criminalization of black and brown youth and the inability of our society to address racial inequity. Because our society does not want to deal with that inequity, the effects spill over into schools.”

An abundance of police and a shortage of mental health workers

Based on the average number of students per school counselor, the ACLU concluded that the average counselor is “seriously overworked with student caseloads 78 percent greater than what is recommended by experts.”

School psychologists are even worse off, with the average caseload over 200 percent higher than what’s recommended by national experts, which the ACLU found “extremely troubling, given that school psychologists are usually the staff most qualified to assess a student’s safety risk to themselves and others.”

The country has over 27,000 sworn police officers in schools, but just 23,000 social workers. In Pennsylvania, the number of school police exceeds the national average and there are nearly twice as many cops as social workers.

One-third of school police officers in the country reported that their school does not specify the types of student misbehavior that officers can intervene in, according to the ACLU. This can lead to “an inappropriate use of force for minor misbehaviors.”

“Students have been charged for ‘disorderly conduct’ for cursing, for ‘drug possession’ for carrying a maple leaf, and for ‘disrupting school’ by fake burping,” the study found.

Jimenez called the history of funding school policing without adequately funding mental health services a “microcosm of a larger issue in our society.”

“This manifests itself in the disproportionate application of rules that are arbitrarily applied” by staff members who often have biases that reflect the broader American culture, Jimenez said.

“So. if society as a whole views black girls as unruly, then you’re going to see those biases – both implicit and conscious – in people who decide how to enforce discipline policies in schools,” Jimenez said. “Especially when you have a workforce that’s increasingly younger and whiter and female, it’s a situation where most of the teaching population and disciplinary staff do not look like the students they are serving.

“Because, collectively, we have not done the hard work of exploring our implicit biases and the history that created the current situation, we’re not able to adequately address those problems. This [policing] is just a reflection of that.”

Data from the U.S. Department of Education 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection. Graph from ACLU.


Decades of investment in school police

In 1975, only 1 percent of schools were policed. That number has shot up to 48 percent of all U.S. schools. This growth has been “driven more by national media attention about school violence and the availability of grant funding than by an actual uptick in violent incidents in specific schools,” according to the ACLU report.

After the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, President Bill Clinton pushed the first round of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) grants, targeted at fighting crime and drug use in schools. After the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, President Obama expanded the program, which led to school districts hiring even more police.

Schools with police have arrest rates three times as high as those without police. Between the 2013-14 and 2015-16 school years, the nation saw a 3 percent increase in the number of students arrested at school and a 17 percent increase in the number who were investigated by local law enforcement, also known as a “referral.”

Pennsylvania saw a 25 percent increase in the number of student arrests in school, and the number of referrals to law enforcement nearly doubled in those three years. Philadelphia, however, implemented a police diversion program for students that has reduced student arrests to a fraction of what they once were – from 1,580 in the 2013-14 school year to 456 in the 2017-18 school year.

The Philadelphia Student Union has long pushed for such efforts, and it continues to demand the removal of police and the addition of mental health services in schools. Last month, the student union testified before the Philadelphia Board of Education, arguing against a proposed policy that would mandate metal detectors in all high schools.

“Metal detectors tend to change communities in a way that creates distrust,” Sam Shippen, a student at Science Leadership Academy at Beeber, testified before the board. “Metal detectors are a Band-Aid on a bigger problem.”


In a statement, the school district said “We firmly believe that student support services, such as counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, climate staff and other related positions are vital as we strive to make our schools even better places for students to learn and grow.” The statement emphasized its use of trauma-informed care, restorative practices and social/emotional learning based on real experiences,” highlighting “considerable investments” made in partnership with city agencies and outside groups.

For instance, in 2017 the district committed to adding 22 social workers in schools in collaboration with the city’s Department of Behavioral Health. END UPDATE

Race and poverty shape how police are used

“This surge in police officers contributes to a biased application of discipline and over-criminalization of students of color and students with disabilities,” the ACLU concluded.

Although in Philadelphia there has been an effort to back away from zero tolerance through the diversion program and initiatives to ban suspensions in the lower grades, Jimenez said a “culture of control,” particularly over poor students of color, is still pervasive in many schools – aided and abetted by federal policy and the historical stigma against people of color.

The ACLU found that students attending schools with high percentages of black and/or low-income students are more likely to experience “tough security measure like metal detectors, random ‘contraband’ sweeps, security guards, and security cameras, even when controlling for the level of serious misconduct in schools or violence in school neighborhoods.”

Jimenez said the push for more school police is a symptom of “our society’s unwillingness to address mental health issues head-on.”

“Our hesitance as a culture is reflected in policy,” he said. Policing away problems creates “an easy black and white situation,” framed in simple terms that can be mandated like a rubric.

“But addressing students’ mental health does not have a simple policy solution — even with more mental health staff in the school.”

So policing students becomes the easy way out. The more marginalized the student community, the less likely that policing is to turn heads.

Trump doubles down on historical trends

The trends in government policy are likely to continue. Within six months of the Parkland school shooting in Florida last year, more than $1 billion was added to school security budgets by state legislatures, according to the ACLU. After the shooting, President Trump’s administration released a report on school safety, which rhetorically acknowledged the need for more mental health workers. But in the end, the administration ignored this stated need and pushed harsher school discipline policies and more police in schools — even encouraging school districts to arm teachers.

While the youth homicide rate is relatively low compared to historic levels, the suicide rate among adolescents increased by 70 percent between 2006 and 2016.

Jordan disagreed with the policy approach in recent years.

“With all that we know about the trauma so many of our children face every day, it’s outrageous that so many legislators want to put resources into making schools feel more like prisons than safe, nurturing learning environments,” Jordan said. “The proposals to put more police in our schools tell students that they are feared, but not valued — that’s the wrong message to send to children.”

Jimenez said seeing a police officer when students walk into school every day can “impact their mental health,” especially for students of color who have “tense” subconscious associations with police already.

“If the presence of these police is to ensure your safety, that means that, by default, your safety doesn’t exist without these police here,” he said. “It reinforces that martial atmosphere — that students need to be controlled, rather than looking at students as children who will behave like children.”

The Notebook’s coverage of juvenile justice and system-involved youth is supported by the Samuel L. Fels Fund.