A compromise between Charleston city officials, Charleston County and the county school district will soon bring law enforcement officers into the city’s elementary schools on a full-time basis. It’s a distressingly necessary decision in an era of once-unthinkable school shootings.
But it’s also important to emphasize that officers should not be a first-line defense for misbehavior or a substitute for effective school leadership and discipline.
Charleston has had a special quick response team of officers strategically located throughout the city so that they could answer an emergency at any public or private elementary school within moments.
It was based on national studies and police department best practices, and given the fortunate lack of serious violent incidents in the city’s elementary schools over the past several years, it seems to have worked quite well.
North Charleston has had police officers in all of its elementary schools since 2012. Mount Pleasant started the practice last year.
While Charleston’s new plan will mean new expenses for the city, cost isn’t a primary concern. The lives and livelihoods of children obviously take priority over budgetary matters.
But it is crucial that interactions between young children and police officers on a daily basis be positive experiences.
National data on the impact of full-time police officers in schools is mixed, though there is some concern that behavioral problems increasingly may be handled by law enforcement rather than school officials.
Locally, there’s not enough evidence to suggest that officers have a clearly positive or negative impact. But there are some numbers worth pointing out.
About 385 Charleston County residents under the age of 13 were processed through the state Department of Juvenile Justice in the 2016-17 fiscal year.
Several of these arrests were undoubtedly related to the state’s misguided disturbing schools law, which was overly vague and too often funneled students into the criminal justice system rather than a principal’s office. That law was amended in 2018 to make it less applicable to students.
Among the 15 Charleston County elementary schools that reported no suspensions for “violent or criminal offenses” in the 2016-17 school year, only one was in North Charleston, according to the most recently available state Department of Education data.
The city was the only municipality in the district to have full-time officers in elementary schools at the time.
Among the 18 elementary schools with a suspension or expulsion rate for violent or criminal offenses at or above 1% of students, nine were in North Charleston.
None of these statistics suggest that school resource officers are arresting an alarming number of very young people in schools, or that elementary schools with police officers present full-time record higher rates of violent and criminal offenses.
In fact, it’s entirely possible that behavioral problems would have been more severe without resource officers present. And these numbers can’t account for important but difficult to measure effects such as encouraging a positive view of law enforcement among kids.
But there are behavioral concerns that ought to be investigated more thoroughly in the district’s elementary schools.
Racial disparities are also alarming. Of the total 1,329 people up to age 16 involved in juvenile cases countywide that year, about 76% were black — much higher than the state average of 55%, for instance.
More than 10% of black Charleston County elementary school students were suspended at least once in the 2015-16 school year. Just over 1% of white students faced the same punishment.
Unquestionably, violent and criminal behavior must be taken seriously. It’s nevertheless important to try to keep children out of the criminal justice system to the maximum extent possible.
National studies have also found that simply being arrested as a young person — not necessarily convicted or sentenced to any formal punishment — significantly increased the likelihood of dropping out of school and being incarcerated as an adult.
Keep Charleston’s elementary students safe. Keep them out of the juvenile justice system too.