Police car outside Hillhouse High School in New Haven. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CtMirror.org

Here we are again.

Nineteen children and 2 teachers are dead after an 18 year old opened fire in a classroom in Uvalde, Texas. We grieve the unnecessary loss of life. What do we do now?

I feel lost as a pediatrician. I was unable to answer my 10-year-old patient’s simple question. “How do I stay safe if this happens to me?”

I keep refreshing news outlet websites waiting for a magical article that will share a feasible solution to solve the undeniable gun violence crisis terrorizing America today. To no one’s surprise, I can’t find it.

What I have seen are greater calls to increase the presence of school resource officers and armed security guards in schools.

 It is tempting to fight fire with fire and place armed resource officers in schools across the nation. This move would be incredibly damaging and dangerous to Black and Brown students across the country without assurance for increased protection from school shootings.

We have become numbed to an escalating law enforcement presence in United States schools. It has not always been that way.

The first School Resource Officers (SROs) were introduced in Flint, Michigan in 1953. Police presence in school was incredibly rare prior to that. SROs are police officers assigned to a school in agreement between the local or regional board of education and the chief of police of a local law enforcement agency. They were hired with the publicly stated goal of improving community relations with police officers and reducing juvenile delinquency.

Through the post-World War II movement and the Great Migration, cities in the north became more diverse. Behind the facade of community relations was a racial response to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ruled that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional and in violation of the 14th amendment.

Multiple cities across the country rushed to partner with their local police department to introduce a police presence in school under the name of maintaining peace with motivations rooted in the discriminatory beliefs that having Black and Brown children join integrated schools would result in violence and criminal activity.

The presence of SROs continued to grow following President Lyndon B Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice to “inquire into the causes of crime and delinquency.” This report attempted to establish a relationship between poverty, low income, as causes of youth crime and laid the groundwork for school districts to access federal funding to hire police officers to provide greater protection at schools.

There is a moral panic that can be drawn from the backlash to Brown v. Board continued through President Johnson’s War on Crime, President Nixon’s War on Drugs, and President Clinton’s crime bill that even further increased federal funding for schools to hire school resource officers from local police departments.

Starting with Michigan in 1953, SROs were present in 40 states, but primarily in urban centers by the 1970’s.  Connecticut first started to hire SROs in schools in the 1990s.  In 1975, 1% of schools had a police officer on-site. By 2018, it ballooned to 58%.

We already have a heavy police presence in schools in the United States.  This begs the question. Have SROs helped reduce school shootings? The answer is we don’t know. It is difficult to prepare for relatively rare yet devastating events. In 200 school shootings at which SROs were present, they successfully intervened 2 times. The gunman at Uvalde was able to get past an armed security officer. At this time, we have little evidence as to what role SROs play in reducing school shootings.

Here is what we do know. The presence of SROs widens racial disparities and educational inequities that already exist within our school system for students of color. There is no racial component to behavior or delinquency. Yet, Black and Latinx students were at significantly higher risk of being arrested or referred to law enforcement in schools where SROs were present compared to Black and Latinx students at school without SROs. Nationally,  Black and Latinx students are at greater risk of being arrested, referred to law enforcement, or expelled compared to white students. Even when controlling for school poverty, schools with SROs have 5 times the arrest rate compared to schools without. Looking specifically in Connecticut, There is little evidence to suggest the presence of SROs or metal detectors in schools improves physical safety for students or reduces crime. Rather, they decreased student self-reported feelings of safety at school.

When the SRO is present, situations that could be managed by teachers, counselors, or social workers are more quickly viewed through the lens of the criminal justice system. The increased rate of referrals, suspensions, and expulsions directly contributes to the school to prison pipeline in which Black and Brown children are introduced to law enforcement earlier in life putting them at greater risk of leaving school and entering the criminal justice system.

I am painfully aware I am not suggesting a solution. I don’t have the perfect answer that will stop children being killed at school. We have a gun crisis. We have a mental health crisis. We have a polarization crisis.

I know we want it to go away. As a pediatrician, son, uncle, friend, and human, I want this so badly to end.

In the first wave of response to the shooting in Uvalde, I see a call to increase the presence of armed SROs in school to protect against the next shooting. I worry this puts Black and Brown children at greater risk of intimidation, punishment, and even injury considering the well documented history of racial prejudice in discipline against students of color.

We need solutions. I don’t have the perfect one. But I know what may make things worse. Increasing armed SROs in schools will definitely continue to harm students of color without assurance it will protect them against the next tragedy.

Nishant Pandya is a pediatrician in New Haven.