This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and USA TODAY.

Bella Garcia stood in front of the San Antonio Independent School District board of trustees in June and pleaded with trustees to end the practice of police officers carrying out disciplinary actions for student misconduct.

Behind her, other current and former students held signs that said “counselors not cops” and “cops are used to scare, not help.” Garcia had come back to speak to the board a year after graduating from the district.

“In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, conversations on policing became very polarizing and controversial, but as a previous student of SAISD, it’s super hard for me to understand what’s so controversial about investing in young people and why we’re prioritizing punitive discipline in our schools,” she said, before calling on the board to invest in restorative justice practices.

The school board adopted the 2021-22 budget that night, after listening to dozens of speakers. It did not limit funding for the district’s police department.

The May 2020 killing of Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer sparked debates about the role of police in U.S. society, including in schools and particularly on campuses with large populations of students of color. A month after his murder, four social justice organizations sent a letter to SAISD leaders, urging them to divest from school police and instead allocate resources to hire trained mental health professionals.

U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity showed that school policing disproportionately impacts Black children in several San Antonio school districts. During the 2017-18 school year, these districts referred Black students to law enforcement at more than twice their share of the overall student population.

Criminalizing kids

“The common goal is for the students to be able to go to school and learn and thrive and even make mistakes, without ending up in the juvenile justice system," said Kara Dunovant, Youth Initiatives assistant director at the Earl Carl Institute for Legal & Social Policy Inc. "These are basic adolescent behaviors that are being criminalized."

The Earl Carl Institute at Texas Southern University signed on to the letter sent to SAISD last year. The institute along with the Children’s Defense Fund Texas, Disability Rights Texas, and Texas Appleseed sent similar letters to many large urban school districts in Texas.

Some districts did not report referring any students to law enforcement for the 2017-18 school year, such as Harlandale, Somerset, and Southside ISDs. The San Antonio Report's analysis focused on the five school districts with the highest referral rates: East Central, Edgewood, North East, San Antonio, and Southwest ISDs.

The federal data does not specify why students were referred to law enforcement nor the outcome. Some school law enforcement referrals end in arrests or charges filed, while others may result in citations that require students to appear before a judge. Public schools are required to submit this information to the U.S. Education Department every two years; the 2017-18 data is the most recent available.

With majority Latino student populations, the five school districts referred Latino students to law enforcement at rates similar to their share of the overall student population, but they referred Black students at rates twice as high or more than their Latino counterparts.

Policing mental health

For the 2017-18 school year, Edgewood ISD had the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students — 93.2% — and the smallest percentage of Black students enrolled of the five districts — 2.6%, or 247 Black students. The district referred Black students to law enforcement at rates about 172% higher than Latino students, higher than the other four districts.

Edgewood ISD did not respond to multiple requests to confirm the data the district submitted to the U.S. Education Department, nor did the district provide any comment on the referral numbers.

Similarly, Southwest ISD referred Black students to law enforcement at rates 149% higher than their Latino counterparts during the 2017-18 school year. That is more than twice their share of the overall student population.

In a prepared statement, the district said the federal data does not give an accurate portrayal of Southwest ISD's efforts to keep students out of the criminal justice system because the data is from several years ago and includes police referrals for students who were in need of mental health services. Since 2017, the district has implemented programs to mentor students to keep them from entering the criminal justice system and to train officers in crisis intervention and de-escalation techniques.

In East Central ISD, Black students were referred to law enforcement at rates 115% higher than their Latino peers and 86% higher than their white peers.

Acknowledging the problem

Ashley Chohlis, the district's executive director of student and community engagement, acknowledged that East Central has a problem with Black students being sent to the office for disciplinary action more frequently, but the district continuously works with teachers and other staff to raise awareness about implicit biases and cultural differences that may have led staff to refer Black students at higher rates.

East Central ISD police officer Esmeralda Zendejas greets students as they line up for lunch at Pecan Valley Elementary on Friday.
East Central ISD police officer Esmeralda Zendejas greets students as they line up for lunch at Pecan Valley Elementary on Friday. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

The district established a "first offender" program 12 years ago that offers students who have broken the law on school property a "restorative contract" instead of arresting them. For students who have broken the law more than once, East Central provides a "rebound" program in which students are offered restorative practices, such as mediation, instead of being arrested.

Additionally, East Central ISD established a program called EC Cares that tracks students who have suffered trauma. The system notifies administrators of students' trauma anniversaries so the district can provide counseling and other wraparound services to help students cope and stay in school.

"We know that there are implicit biases for all humans, and we're working very hard on that," Chohlis said. "All we want is to do right by all kids."

East Central ISD officials said the numbers they reported to the Department of Education were inaccurate because of data entry errors. For example, a teacher may have reported to school law enforcement a student who pushed another student, but an administrator decided that the incident didn't require law enforcement intervention and used restorative practices instead, such as bringing the two students together and letting them talk about what happened. If the administrator never changed information entered into the district's database, it would still appear as though the student was referred to law enforcement, Chohlis said.

The district's internal figures show that nine Black students were referred to law enforcement during the 2017-18 school year, which was 16% of total referrals.

Recognizing trauma

Dunovant said efforts like East Central's that increase cultural competence and take trauma into account are what schools should be doing instead of pushing students straight into the juvenile justice system, which often leads to the adult criminal justice system. Teachers should be trained to recognize when a student's behavior is directly related to trauma and then be able to address the trauma instead of calling a police officer.

"We're really pushing for the support of the student and not the punishment of an action," she said.

Some behaviors and language are acceptable in one culture and deemed offensive in another, Dunovant said. Staff and teachers can have implicit biases, such as a belief that the schools they’re working in are dangerous and filled with violent students. That's why schools need culturally competent counselors and other mental health professionals who at least seek to understand the students with whom they work, she said.

“If you're dealing with students who are coming from impoverished areas or who have been historically disadvantaged, they're going to come into school with different issues that other students may not have, and these are the kind of issues that can be handled appropriately through the use of counseling, as opposed to criminalization," Dunovant said.

The American School Counselor Association recommends schools have one counselor for every 250 students.

Retraining police

San Antonio's second largest school district, North East ISD, enrolled about 66,000 students in 2017-18, 7.3% of whom are Black and 59.5% Latino. The district referred Black students to law enforcement at rates 125% higher than their Latino peers.

North East ISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said district staff are not looking at the "disability and/or color of a student" when they request law enforcement assistance but the behavior and whether it is a violation of the law or a danger to the safety of others.

The district's police force established a new unit this school year, the Campus and Community Resource Team, to help students with mental health needs and to provide their families with resources. NEISD Police Chief Wally McCampbell said the district started the new unit after noticing the frequency of wellness checks officers, counselors, and administrators were doing while students struggled to transition from in-person instruction to virtual during the pandemic. Now that students are back in classrooms, the district wants to help students transition back, which has caused stress and anxiety for many students.

“We wanted to take the proactive approach and figure out how we could better serve our kids to help them handle or cope with coming back in person, and we wanted something to go beyond just the initial contact," McCampbell said.

Officer Diana Rodriguez volunteered to be one of the seven initial officers to make up the new unit; each one is assigned to a high school campus but works with all students in that school's feeder pattern. She has worked for the NEISD police department since 2014 and sees herself as a mentor for students. She said the new unit is a way for the police department to reintroduce itself as an advocate and resource for students to get the help they need.

“I just see a lot of issues that, in my opinion, could have been resolved had an adult taken the time to hear what they’re saying and not automatically told them they’re wrong and to go to the office," she said. "That’s just a matter of retraining.”

All 70 NEISD officers receive mental health training that is required by the state for all peace officers. They also get additional crisis intervention training specifically aimed at helping students/children, which is also required for any officer who works on a school campus, McCampbell said.

'Counselors, not cops'

But staff and officers with implicit bias and mental health training are not replacements for trained mental health professionals, Dunovant said. Providing adequate numbers of counselors to meet students' needs would increase students' emotional intelligence and help them learn behaviors that will lead to a reduction in violent incidents and arrests, creating a "domino effect." School safety comes from within the school, from staff and students working together toward wellness, she said.

"It doesn't have to be with a gun and handcuffs," Dunovant said. “We want to keep counselors at the forefront. We want to keep the wealth, the health, and the safety of our students at the forefront, and you can do that in many ways that don't necessarily involve handcuffs, tasers, and the like.”

North East ISD police officer Diana Rodriguez speaks with three students during a passing period at Churchill High School.
North East ISD police officer Diana Rodriguez speaks with students during a passing period at Churchill High School. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

In San Antonio ISD, a team made up of police officers and mental health professionals responds to situations in which students may be a threat to themselves or others. They evaluate whether the student needs to be restrained with handcuffs or sent to a mental health facility, a practice the police call "emergency detention," SAISD Police Chief Jose "Joe" Curiel said.

“Our philosophy is that we will treat every student with respect, dignity, and protection, not based on what they look like or what they wear but most importantly as a human being," he said. “We understand our students. We understand that they come from all walks of life.”

Yet during the 2017-18 school year, SAISD referred Black students to law enforcement at rates 89% higher than their Latino peers and 227% higher than white students.

Curiel said the police department's approach to calls is to de-escalate the situation first and then get students to the resources they need. He said the most common reasons SAISD police intervene is when students are in crisis, when there's a threat to the campus, or when students get caught vaping nicotine or cannabis.

“We know and understand that we have the obligation and we have the duty to intervene when something is not right," Curiel said.

But having in police in schools doesn't make them safer, Dunovant said. The presence of police in schools goes back to the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting, and police have remained in areas that have predominantly Black and brown students and students with disabilities. A Vox analysis of National Center for Education Statistics found that the more students of color a school has, the more likely it is to have a full-time school resource officer or security guard on campus.

Dunovant said school police have often failed to intervene in school shootings and fights, and students have been harmed. During the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17, a school police deputy retreated outside instead of trying to stop the gunman. The officer, who was the only armed guard on campus at the time of the shooting, was charged with seven counts of felony neglect of a child in one of the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history.

“We've seen over 25, 26 years that these policies do nothing but send kids to the juvenile justice system and eventually the criminal justice system," Dunovant said. "We've seen almost no movement in changing the way these practices happen in the placement of police officers and whether or not they're necessary at all in these conditions and in these areas.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.