Students Question Why Schools Paying More to Have Police On-Site Rather than Nurses

Protests over funding for officers is part of larger debate on role of policing in minority communities
Credit: Make the Road NJ
As part of a National Day of Resistance, high school students in Elizabeth on Monday called for police-free schools.

New Jersey has provided school districts with almost $2.5 billion in security aid since 2008, with another $287 million anticipated to be spent in the coming school year. Now, the continuing conversations about policing in the U.S. have prompted students in at least one district to call for redirecting money from security to staff and programs to benefit students.

A small gathering of Elizabeth students, members of the immigrant rights group Make the Road New Jersey, and others gathered in a park across from Elizabeth City Hall Monday to protest the presence of police and security guards in their schools. One banner read “Counselors Not Cops” and those gathered chanted such slogans as, “More nurses, not cops,” and “Police-free schools.”

It was one of at least four actions in New Jersey Monday that were part of the National Day of Resistance to the Reopening of Schools in light of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Others, including one in Newark, more generally called for ensuring that schools only reopen when science and data indicate it will be safe and demanded adequate personal protective equipment, smaller class sizes and equitable access to online learning.

The rally in Elizabeth focused more on reducing the presence of police and security within schools to free up funding for school counselors and nurses. Nedia Morsy, lead organizer with Make the Road New Jersey, said its student leaders from Elizabeth wanted to make known their views that part of reopening schools safely and equitably means making them police-free.

“In the midst of budget cuts headed our way, youth members wanted to make sure that our school district in Elizabeth is not investing more in police but student and community supports like counselors and nurses and social workers and programming,” she said. “Funding used to secure police in schools … should be invested towards classroom materials, guidance counselors and other student support systems, which actually have been shown to increase student safety.”

Announcing the rally, Make the Road New Jersey pointed to the minutes of a May 9, 2019 Elizabeth Board of Education meeting during which Superintendent Olga Hugelmeyer discussed the district’s crisis plan and safety measures, saying the district employs 167 security guards and “police officers in targeted locations,” and has metal detectors and camera surveillance systems.

Guards or nurses

One student said there are more security guards than either guidance counselors or nurses, adding that not every school has a full-time nurse. According to the most recent state report card on the district, for the 2018-2019 school year, Elizabeth had one nurse for every 513 students and one counselor per 587 students. While the report card does not break out data for school security staff, 167 guards for a student population of 28,195 would put the ratio of security guards to students at 1 to 169.

Another student, who only gave her first name as Destiny, said she was surprised to learn that not all schools in the state have metal detectors, given their presence in Elizabeth.

“Then I thought, ‘Why us and not them? Are we scarier?’” she said. “In our schools, like schools around the country, there is a belief that Black and brown students need to be policed.”

Elizabeth’s schools are majority Hispanic, according to its school report card: Almost 72.8% of students were Latino, 17.4% were Black, 1.7% Asian and 7.8% white.

A spokesman for the district said security guards are needed to patrol schools, administrative buildings and sports facilities. According to its comprehensive annual financial report for the 2018-2019 school year, Elizabeth has 36 schools.

Rudy, an Elizabeth High School graduate who did not want to give his last name, cited a 2019 ACLU report that found students are more apt to be subject to arrest and discipline when police are in schools. It is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Perils of student-police contact

“No data indicates that police in schools improve student safety, student educational outcomes, or student mental health,” according to the ACLU report. “Increased police presence in schools results in an expansion in the types of roles police play in schools, an increase in student referrals to police, an increase in student arrests, and accountability problems from student-police contact.”

An NJ Spotlight analysis of data from the state’s school report cards found that Elizabeth students missed the most instructional days due to out-of-school suspensions of any district in the state in the 2017-2018 year. That trend continued in 2018-2019, when students missed 6,865 days, some 2,100 days more than the Atlantic City district, which had the second-largest number of days missed, according to the data. The second-largest public school district in the state, Elizabeth also had an enrollment of about 28,200 that year, or four times more than Atlantic City.

“Research shows that police in schools criminalize normal youth behavior,” Destiny said. “It’s time to recognize the harm police have caused, whether it was intentional or not.”

The partnership between New Jersey’s public schools and police became widespread in the 1980s with the push to combat drug and alcohol use among students and the establishment of DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) programs involving police officers. In 1998, the state created a school resource officer program as a way to reduce juvenile delinquency, according to a 2015 report by the New Jersey School Security Task Force. Beginning with the massacre in April 1999 at Columbine High School, Colorado, mass shootings in schools have shifted attention to the question of how to keep students safe.

State school aid data shows that New Jersey began giving districts aid earmarked for security in 2008-2009, with an initial allocation of almost $224 million. In every year since then except 2010-2011, due to recessionary cuts, the state has provided around $200 million or more. From 2018-2019 through 2020-2021, state security aid has totaled more than $286 million a year.

Still, little is known about how districts are spending that money.

The state does not break out spending on security or the number of guards or police in schools in any of its public reports.

Security varies by district

“One reason is security services can be structured very differently by district and school, depending on the community,” said Michael Yaple, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. “Some districts have a school resource officer assigned specifically to a school or to the district … Many police departments may have an officer assigned to check on the schools and visit the occasional school program, but the school is not necessarily the officer’s full-time beat. Many districts employ security guards.”

School resource officers are typically employed by a police department, he continued, although sometimes schools pay for some or all of the cost of an officer. Some districts contract with a security firm, rather than hiring guards themselves.

Districts’ budget and audit summary data submissions to the state only contain broad expenditure categories of security costs, but no details documenting how the aid is spent, Yaple added.

Elizabeth is slated to get $12.2 million in school security aid next year. Its Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) indicates the district spent almost $8.4 million on security in 2018-2019, all but about $100,000 on salaries. By comparison, the district spent $6.6 million on guidance and $4 million on health services.

The city is not alone in its high spending on security. Newark, the state’s largest district with close to 36,000 students, spent more than $14.1 million on security in 2018-2019, with close to $13.8 million on salaries, according to its CAFR. The city’s schools spent about $8 million on counseling and $9 million on health services.