2017 Topical Reporting, Large Newsroom finalist

Bullied by the Badge

Rebecca Klein and Kyle Spencer

The Hechinger Report

Topical Reporting, Large Newsroom


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About the Project

The number of officers stationed inside schools has risen dramatically over the last two decades, spiking in response to school shootings like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. But do police officers stationed in schools really protect students?

Few have asked this critical question, even as political leaders, including the Obama administration, have poured millions of dollars into hiring and arming additional cops in schools. In the spring of 2016, The Huffington Post and The Hechinger Report set out to investigate the effects of the dramatic increase in the ranks of school resource officers patrolling American schools.

In our opening story, set in a diverse school in Mississippi, Kyle Spencer found that school cops arrest teens for infractions that in some cases might otherwise merit a detention thereby sending kids into the criminal justice system unnecessarily. The story was the first in a series of four articles published on both the Huffington Post and Hechinger Report websites. Included with the series was an interactive graphic showing explicitly that kids who attend schools with cops stationed in their hallways are more likely to be criminalized for a variety of misbehaviors from petty theft to drug use to fighting.

In the second story of the series, Rebecca Klein uncovered a disturbing trend in schools where school cops use Tasers on children to break up student fights, retaliation against a kid for being disrespectful, or to control a child who is resisting arrest.

For the third installment Ms. Klein attended the annual conference of school cops to understand best practices for training police to work with children, and whether even the most thorough training can offset the downsides to police presence in schools. She discovered that most school-based police officers spend their days mostly bored and preparing for worst-case scenarios like active shooters and terrorist threats, events that are extremely rare.

For the final story in the series, we looked at solutions for reducing the number of children arrested. The goal of the story was to explore whether it’s possible for states to keep young people safe while simultaneously shrinking the number of adolescents who enter the criminal justice system. We found one state that’s accomplishing that: Connecticut, which has held fast to juvenile justice reforms, including cutting school police officers, even after the deadly Sandy Hook shooting there prompted others to increase law enforcement in schools.

Less than a month after the first two stories published, the Obama administration held a news briefing calling on schools to reduce the role of school-based police officers. “This can lead to citations or arrest, and set students on a path to dropping out of school or even to prison,” said the education secretary John King. The U.S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice released a new tool connected to federal funding to encourage better training for school resource officers, among other changes.