Jul. 16, 2020

By Natalie Beck
Assistant professor of Social Work

In the aftermath of large-scale Black Lives Matter protests, in this time of reflecting on what we can do maintain momentum, one common sense reform that we can make is to remove police from schools in Texas completely. Immediately. Before the fall semester begins.

The funding for these positions can be transitioned to employ school social workers instead. Social workers have been in schools in the U.S. since 1907, though some areas have been more eager to adopt them than others. According to the School Social Work Association of America, a ratio of 250 students to one social worker is recommended in U.S. schools; Texas has an astounding 13,604 to one ratio, the federal Civil Rights Data Collection reveals. This is about 6.5 times worse than the national average, and Texas ranks second to last in the nation. Recently, of the 5.3 million schoolchildren in Texas, 41% reported there were police, but no psychologist, nurse, social worker, and/or counselor present in their school. It is time for Texas to invest in prevention rather than criminalization and do better for our children, especially those from systematically-oppressed communities.

We can remember a world without police in schools because many of us lived in that world not long ago. Police presence in schools was not widespread until the late 1990s, according to the Texas School Safety Center. At that time, high-profile school shooting tragedies such as Columbine began to shape the conversation on school safety, with help from the federal government that allowed schools to employ more officers. These officers continue to enforce ineffective zero-tolerance policies for weapons and drugs on campuses that were adopted during the 1990s, as well as arrest and detain students for incidents that would have been handled by principals in years past. This makes them a large part of the school-to-prison pipeline, the structures in place which criminalize school behaviors and track certain students toward incarceration. These structural inequities of the school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately target students of color, with disabilities, in the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrant students according to the ACLU. Since almost half of Texas students report police presence in their school, far too many students are being funneled out of education’s college and career pathway and into the criminal justice system.

In an attempt to address this, legislation passed in Texas in 2015 mandated that school districts train law enforcement officers on “de-escalation techniques, mental and behavioral health needs, mental health crisis intervention, child and adolescent development and psychology, positive behavioral supports, conflict resolution techniques, and restorative justice,” according to the Texas School Safety Center. Every one of these areas that law enforcement needed improvement in are the evidence-based education, behavior, and mental health professional training and expertise of school social work, which helps students be mentally, physically, and emotionally present in class while promoting respect and dignity for all students, according to the National Association of Social Workers.

During this time of civil unrest and a global pandemic, whether schools are in person or virtual in the fall, school social workers are needed now more than ever. According to The Center for Injury Research and Prevention, the key to preventing school shootings is building a supportive school environment, which social workers are integral an integral part of. Replacing police with school social workers can address the concern that police were largely brought in to address. Incremental change like mandating better police training did not work in 2015, and we need to think bigger in 2020.

Dr. Natalie Beck, LCSW-S worked in school social work and juvenile justice for a decade, and is now Assistant Professor of Social Work at St. Edward’s University.

Dr. Stephanie Ochocki, LICSW has been a school social worker for over 15 years.

This op-ed was originally published on Medium.com.