As post-Newtown proposals aimed at making U.S. schools safer take shape, civil rights groups are taking an unusual stand, saying "no thanks" to more police in school.
Several groups have already told Congress that more armed officers in schools won't necessarily make students safer. On March 28, a coalition of young people from across the nation announced its opposition to "the deployment of additional armed guards" in schools.
"We don't need more guns," said Judith Brown Diannis of the Advancement Project, a coalition of civil rights groups that supports the students. "We need people who can build relationships with young people."
Hers and others are pushing for schools to hire more counselors and social workers, saying the threat from outside intruders like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., is exceedingly rare. "Unfortunately, when these tragedies happen, we never make the choices that are about the long-term solutions," she said.
The Obama administration has proposed adding 1,000 more school resource officers (SROs), counselors, social workers and school psychologists. On Jan. 16, President Obama unveiled a "Comprehensive School Safety" program that would give schools and local law enforcement agencies $150 million for new personnel, with the Department of Justice slated to develop a model for SROs.
The National Rifle Association also recently unveiled its "National School Shield" plan to beef up school safety. Asa Hutchinson, a former Republican congressman who is leading the effort, told USA TODAY last month, "An armed guard is not a 100% guarantee of security - we would never say that. But it certainly enhances the response" to a shooting.
The national group that represents school police officers notes that the rise of SROs in the early 2000s coincided with a 17% decline in juvenile arrests and a 13% decline in violent crime. But civil rights groups point to recent statistics in places like Florida that suggest cops in school led to more arrests for minor, often routine disciplinary disturbances, often tied to district "zero-tolerance" policies for violence, drugs and weapons. These arrests, they say, send kids down a path of school suspension, expulsion and delinquency, worsening what they call the "school-to-prison pipeline."
"Unfortunately, police have been used as discplinarians," said Brown Diannis, "and juvenile courts have been used as the principal's office."
In one 2011 case, police pulled 15-year-old Malcolm Calvert off a Hallandale Beach, Fla., school bus, handcuffed him, arrested him and charged him with battery for throwing a lollipop at a friend. Malcolm spent several hours locked up at a juvenile detention center before police let his father take him home. Malcolm's friend declined to press charges, said Shannan Holder, a public defender in Broward County, Fla. Prosecutors dropped the case, but the arrest threw Malcolm into a depression that required counseling.
"He was not the same child that he was before this incident occurred," Holder said. Malcolm, a special-education student, started acting out in class and has since gotten in trouble with police for other petty offenses. "Those are the negatives when you put handcuffs on a child for such a small infraction," Holder said.
Now 17, Malcolm is still getting counseling. Holder said it's helping. "This has been two years, and he's just starting to get over the incident and the after-effects of what happened."
His father, Ernest Saunders, said he's doing better, but he's "still got a long ways to go."
A January 2013 report from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice found that about one delinquency arrest in seven was school-related in the 2011-12 fiscal year.
Overall, Florida's findings suggest that the "school-to-prison pipeline" idea is real: Just over half of school-related arrests in 2011-12 were for first-time offenders. The report also found that African-American boys accounted for 35.5% of school-related arrests.
"That's a civil rights issue that as a nation we have to be willing and ready to address," said Chandlee Johnson Kuhn, chief judge of Family Court in Delaware.
Mo Canady, who heads the National Association of School Resource Officers, said the organization is not calling for a larger police presence in schools, just a better-trained one.
"There's a huge difference between a properly trained, properly selected school resource officer and an armed guard," he said. "A school resource officer is engaged in the day-to-day activities of a school." When local police and schools work together to select and train police and agree on boundaries, he said, "you don't see arrests increase - you see them decrease."
Canady said schools shouldn't have to choose between more cops or more counselors. "I don't see it as an either/or type of thing," he said. "I think that communities will have to decide what it is they want. I'm all for more counselors. I'm all for well-trained school resource officers. I think if you can have both, you're really putting yourself ahead of the game."