For Alexandra Valera, a high school junior, walking into school each day feels like walking into a prison.
Like many others around the country, her New York City high school has police officers and metal detectors – and students are forced to empty their pockets each day and risk getting patted down each morning.
“You have to take off your jewelry, you have to put your phone and your keys in a special [cubby] and have to go through metal detectors,” Valera, a youth leader with social justice advocacy Make the Road NY and the Urban Youth Collaborative, said in an interview.
Jocelyn Diaz Palafox, a high school senior in New York City, told ABC News that tensions are at an all-time high between students and law enforcement in her school because of discrimination in policing. She said she's been told by students of color that they’re often afraid to head to school because of how they may interact with the police.
“I've seen students get arrested. I’ve seen students have physical encounters with police officers, and even just witnessing these encounters has a negative toll on other students,” said Palafox, a youth leader with Make the Road NY and the Urban Youth Collaborative.
In the wake of the horrific mass shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas, some politicians, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, have proposed increased law enforcement or security in schools as a potential solution. But some students, particularly those of color, like Valera and Palafox, fear discrimination and possible brutality may result without much positive impact on the overall safety of students and staff.
Limited research inconclusive on effectiveness: Experts
School shootings are rare, so there isn’t much data to demonstrate whether or not officers make schools safer or not. But the small amount of data that has been collected on the subject so far has failed to prove that increasing police presence is an effective strategy for stopping violence on campus, some researchers say.
"Their presence may result in students being at a heightened risk of being criminalized, having their developmentally appropriate juvenile/child behavior interpreted as a violation of law.”
F. Chris Curran, a professor and director at the Education Policy Research Center, found that there was not consistent evidence that the presence of law enforcement decreased the total of behavioral incidents that happened in schools, or stopped school shootings.
Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, where the most recent school shooting left 19 students and two teachers dead, has a police force of its own dedicated to the school district, for example.
Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) told ABC News that he believes law enforcement in schools can be effective as long as officers are properly trained and follow industry best practices.
“We've taught, for three generations now, that relationships are at the core of this,” Canady said. “The idea is that for the SRO, they view students as students, and so it's very important that you start with the goal of relationship building.” He acknowledged that discrimination against people of color is real, and officers need to be trained against their biases and prejudices.
“There are so many moving parts of working with youth in a school environment,” Canady said. “Everything from the adolescent brain development, to mental health issues, to students with special needs – [it’s about[ understanding all those aspects that take place in a school and being able to engage in them appropriately.”
The organization has pointed to incidences of violence at schools in Illinois, Maryland and more recently, Kansas, which have been minimized by police officers.
The Justice Department failed to find conclusive data on whether police are effective in overall school safety efforts: “these studies provide no evidence base that suggests that police presence in schools makes a difference in improving safety outcomes.”
Even in schools with dedicated police officers, one study from the National Institute of Justice Journal in 2009 found that about half of the officers surveyed said that their schools’ emergency plans were “not adequate.” Over 66% said their emergency plans were “not practiced on a regular or ongoing basis.”
The Justice Department also found that increased police presence doesn’t necessarily encourage a positive school climate or improve the student body’s belief that they are safe in schools.
On the contrary, research from the Department of Education has found that having more police in schools criminalizes normal teenage behaviors and is more likely to push Black and brown students into the criminal justice system.
“By having law enforcement in schools, they're more likely to get brought into disciplinary situations that, in their absence, probably could have been handled by school administrators or teachers,” said Curran.
Potentially damaging to student trust
Psychologist Angela Mann, who studies social justice and equity, says that having tighter security overall – whether it's armed police or metal detectors – can also damage the school’s culture and a student’s trust in the safety of the institution.
“One of the top things that could actually be helping us, in terms of school safety and preventing these events, is when students have good relationships with adults in the building,” Mann said.
Welcoming school environments with counselors, mental health resources and social workers that students can trust is an important tool to make schools safer, experts say.
However, some students in schools with tight security say they feel like criminals walking into class every day.
Some students of color interviewed by ABC News expressed fear that one wrong move could land them on the school-to-prison pipeline, which uses the criminal justice system to punish students instead of in-school methods.
“A lot of the behavior that would end up in the principal's office these days too often ends up in the police precinct,” said Marc Schindler, executive director of the criminal justice policy organization, Justice Policy Institute.
Students of color will feel the brunt of the impacts of police in schools – they are more likely to be discriminated against or criminalized by school police than their white peers, experts say.
“You can't talk about these issues without talking about race,” Schindler said. “The initial impetus for having police in schools was because those communities saw an influx of people of color … and the white majority was concerned about potential upticks in violence in schools.”
The Department of Education found that Black students are 2.3 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement or be arrested in school compared to their white peers. The disparity widens for Black girls, who are six times more likely to be suspended from school compared to white girls of the same age.
For some advocating against police in schools, there’s more to lose than gain by increasing law enforcement. They say the problem stems from outside of the school -- gun violence -- which is the leading cause of death for children in the U.S.
“If we didn't have such easy access to firearms, particularly lethal automatic weapons, many of these conversations would not be taking place,” said Schindler. “We divested in so many communities, in so many schools that we've created environments that are ripe for violence, because of poverty, because of drugs, because of lack of employment, all the things that come together to make violence more likely.”