TAMPA — More security guards are not needed in the Hillsborough public schools and could contribute to discrimination against minority students, the American Civil Liberties Union said Monday.
After analyzing data on student achievement and discipline, the individual rights advocacy group came out strongly against a proposal to place an armed guard in every elementary school. The Hillsborough County School Board is scheduled to vote on the idea next week.
"There is little evidence that the presence of SROs (school resource officers) will deter potential shooters," wrote Michael Pheneger, the group's statewide and Tampa Bay area president. "SROs at Columbine and campus police at Virginia Tech did not prevent those tragedies. ... The unfortunate truth is that no amount of additional spending can guarantee that shooting incidents will not occur."
More likely, Pheneger wrote, an increase in police and non-police guards will result in discipline that is more prevalent among minority students.
"There are negative consequences associated with placing additional police officers in public schools," Pheneger wrote, drawing on research the ACLU is conducting nationwide in what it calls the schools-to-prison pipeline.
"SROs, understandably, take a law-enforcement approach to school discipline. Problems once resolved in the principal's office often end up in the juvenile justice system."
Quoting the Florida Justice Policy Institute, he also wrote: "Schools with SROs have nearly five times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without them."
The School Board had planned to vote on the four-year security expansion at Tuesday's meeting. But, because member Candy Olson will be away and Superintendent MaryEllen Elia wanted the full board present, it is being rescheduled to a special meeting Dec. 18, when the board will gather for a workshop.
The idea has drawn strong support from elementary school principals. Both Elia and 20-year security chief David Friedberg, who disclosed recently that he will soon retire, have said last year's killings in Newtown, Conn. convinced them every campus needs a trained first responder.
Friedberg is adamant that the Hillsborough guards and SROs make every attempt to keep students out of the criminal justice system. But he acknowledged recently that more guards and officers could logically lead to more arrests — and that the district would have to watch out for racial disparities.
Data pulled by the ACLU show that of disciplinary incidents resulting in arrests last school year, 48 percent involved black students, 25 percent Hispanics and 21 percent whites. That compares with a student population that is 22 percent black, 32 percent Hispanic and 37 percent white.
The organization also is concerned about students being deprived of their rights and being interviewed without parents present. And the group questions whether schools are dealing with the causes of inappropriate behavior.
"Information the district provided to the NAACP indicates that the vast majority of disciplinary infractions occur in the classroom, suggesting that programs to improve the in-class dynamics between students and teachers would be a wiser investment of scarce resources," Pheneger wrote.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]