Crisis at San Marcos High School

Threats to Students and Counter-Productive Solutions

Paul Wellman (file)

There’s a crisis at San Marcos High School. Recently online threats have been made against female students there, which understandably freaks out parents. Unfortunately there has been an inadequate response by school leaders, who do not know how to deal with this situation in a positive way. Pressured by parents, they resort to the standard (and now Trumpian) response: armed police in the school. These are euphemistically called “Student Resource Officers” (SRO) but they are just armed, on-duty cops. In fact it is revealing that SMHS, the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD), and other advocates of police in the hallways would find it necessary to come up with that euphemism at all.

Of course the school should work together with parents, students, educators, and the community to effectively remedy gender- and race-based conflicts in our schools. But as a social scientist, I can tell you that research shows “police in the hallways” does not work. In fact, it fosters division, racial and gender-based antagonism, and increases the danger to kids in schools. If you want to learn more about this, take a look at Kathleen Nolan’s book Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High School (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), which is one of the best of the new research works out there.

Not all parents and community people are reacting in this knee-jerk way. Only some people are letting themselves be governed by fear, which is ultimately irrational and counterproductive. Other parents — backed by community people and school staff, and also listening to student voices — are organizing against police in the hallways of San Marcos.

A movement of concerned parents, students, staff, and community members of the SBUSD is organizing against this counterproductive push for using the police. Looking toward the upcoming March meeting of the SBUSD Board, we are proposing the following points as action items for the meeting:

  1. There should be no armed police (so-called School Resource Officers or SROs) on the San Marcos High School Campus. We firmly stand against SROs in our school system and urge the Superintendent and Board of the Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD) to do the same. The perception that the presence of cops in school would create a safer environment is incorrect. It would instead have a disproportionate impact on girls, students of color, and disabled students. If you want more evidence that police in the hallways (SROs) are harmful, not helpful, in dealing with in-school social conflicts, see the Nolan book I mentioned. There is also an online summary of the evidence that cops in school does not work, available at the following link:
  2. We are also demanding that any already existing SROs (yes, there already are some) on school campuses in the SBUSD will receive in-depth, multi-day, recurring training in implicit bias. Any SRO on campus should also receive in-depth, multi-day, recurring training in nonviolent de-escalation and intervention strategies. Training in implicit bias, de-escalation, and intervention should begin before any cops are placed on campus and be maintained and updated in regular intervals throughout their assignment as an SRO.
  3. We demand that the SBUSD and SMHS in particular provide intervention programming to students, parents, and staff. These programs should target the misogyny, bullying, and racism that have been reported by students as being a part of SBUSD campus culture.
  4. We demand that a task force on mental-health services be formed to ensure the mental-health services provided to students are effective in promoting widespread prevention of psychological crises and limit feelings of stigma for those seeking help.
  5. We demand that a course in Ethnic Studies be included as a graduation requirement for all SBUSD high school students. Ethnic Studies includes gender studies, and the study of other marginalized groups. This has now been mandated by the California Department of Education (See the Social Content Sheet here). Research shows that these courses increase empathy and understanding, and improve intergroup relations.
  6. We demand that Superintendent Matsuoka visit the SMHS campus and address the student body to explain the above actions being taken to improve the safety of students and target problems within the campus culture.

Howard Winant is a professor of Sociology at UCSB and a member of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), Santa Barbara.


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