In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, scrutiny of police officers—including those in schools—has increased. Social science research has shown that school mental health staff members contribute more to positive student outcomes than school police. Nonetheless, high school students in 37 states are more likely to attend a school with a police officer than with a social worker.
Data from the 2017–18 academic year show the following:
- Fifty-five percent of high school students, 38 percent of middle school students, and 18 percent of elementary school students attend a school with police presence, though the rates in high school and middle school have dropped since 2013–14 (when 67 percent of high schools and 45 percent of middle schools had a police officer).
- The four states with the highest shares of high school students in schools with police officers are Virginia (92 percent), South Carolina (87 percent), Tennessee (86 percent), and Georgia (85 percent).
- Forty percent of high school students, 33 percent of middle school students, and 31 percent of elementary school students attend a school with a social worker.
- States with the lowest rates of social workers in high school are Oklahoma (5 percent), Florida (9 percent), Mississippi (13 percent), and Alabama (15 percent). States with the highest shares of their high school students in schools with social workers are Rhode Island (92 percent), New Jersey (89 percent), Connecticut (89 percent), and Maine (79 percent).
- Sixty-two percent of students in high schools that are 20 to 80 percent students of color see a police officer in their school staff.
- The likelihood of a student of color attending a high school with a social worker is roughly 40 percent, regardless of the school’s racial demographics.
School mental health support staff members and school police officers are both significant investments, but social workers are ideally positioned to help students and help address underlying inequities. Though the presence of police decreases the rates of serious student misbehavior, it is also associated with increased law enforcement referrals for nonserious crimes and decreased rates of high school graduation. Hiring a well-trained school mental health staff, meanwhile, improves student academic and socioemotional skills, high school graduation rates, and school climate while decreasing disciplinary incidents.
Though police and social workers are not mutually exclusive, understanding which students encounter which support staff each day can highlight disparities in educational experiences. Removing policing and punitive discipline and replacing them with equitable access to mental health staff and safe schools can be a critical step toward creating a public schooling system that is equipped to meaningfully serve all students.
Explore the Data
- Youth of Color
- What does the “Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act” mean for students?
- School social workers and educational outcomes
- Do police keep schools safe? Fuel the school-to-prison pipeline? Here’s what research says.
- 3 Key Questions for Rethinking Student Safety Investments
- Social work services in schools: Evaluation of a community-school social work model
- Results from a statewide school-based mental health program: Effects on school climate
- Police in schools and student arrest rates across the United States: Examining differences by race, ethnicity, and gender
- The prevalence of police officers in US schools
- Cops & No Counselors: How the lack of school mental health staff is harming students
- Patrolling public schools: The impact of funding for school police on student discipline and long‐term education outcomes