The Unequal Harm of Campus Deputies

Students Report Fear and Clumsy Handling of Sexual Assault

The Santa Barbara Unified School District board faced a historic vote on October 12 when it decided not to renew the contract for an armed School Resource Deputy (SRD) at San Marcos High School. The significance of this vote cannot be overstated. Districts across the state face the same choice: to continue to fund armed police on school campuses or to reimagine school safety by discontinuing police presence.

Before the board voted, the student-led youth coalition Cops Off Campus S.B. gathered testimonials from students who had direct experience with the deputies, also known as School Resource Officers, or SROs. The clear disparities in testimonies by students of color and white students revealed two different sets of experiences, which appeared to be determined largely by ethnicity and race.

One white student called attention to this fact in public comments on October 12, stating, “As I look at the student testimonies, I see such a disparity between the experiences of students of color and white students like myself.” He noted how, when asked about their experiences with school deputies, students of color report feeling “afraid, violated, and harassed” and experienced “intense anxiety.”

He asked, “How can all students in Santa Barbara Unified School District learn, and achieve our educational goals, when marginalized students are having such a different experience and being criminalized on our school campuses? … No one should want this harm to continue.”

Most testimonies from students of color were anonymous for fear of retaliation:

“The presence of police on our school campus was not reassuring…. They make problems worse and racially profile and target some students.”

“I was an honor student, but I felt afraid of cops at school….”

“SROs do not make me feel protected or safe; rather, they make me feel anxious and stressed on campus.”

The Santa Barbara district is not alone in their new position about armed deputies on school campuses. In the face of irrefutable data justifying their removal, school districts across California are making the move, including those in San Jose, Marin, Los Angeles, Pomona, Oakland, Fremont, Palm Springs, Los Altos, Claremont, Salinas, and San Francisco, and the list is growing.

In managing limited school funds, district leaders are becoming increasingly aware that paying for cops on campus is a misuse of resources. No research to date shows that police on campus prevent or deter violent crime. In 197 instances of gun violence at U.S. schools since 1999, campus deputies have had a 1.5 percent success rate. When a gunman opened fire on a school in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, 17 people were killed despite the presence of an armed school deputy.

Cops on campus not only fail to protect students, but in many instances, they create harm. Statewide data matches the testimonies of Santa Barbara’s students: When police are in schools, many students tend to feel less connected with the school, less trusting of adults, and less safe. Compared to schools without armed police, the arrest rates for schools with them are 3.5 times higher, and in some states as much as 8 times higher. 

The ACLU noted in a May 2021 article, “Exacerbating this problem is the fact that certain student groups are policed disproportionately. This is the case for students of color who are arrested or referred to law enforcement at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts,” a pattern that creates the school-to-prison pipeline.

It isn’t just students of color who are negatively impacted by cops on campus. The ACLU adds that in schools with deputies “students with disabilities are arrested or referred to law enforcement nearly three times the rate of their non-disabled peers.”

At a subsequent school board meeting, Sheriff Bill Brown criticized the board’s vote, stating that campus deputies “provide a safe space for survivors of abuse.” The testimony of one San Marcos alumni paints a different picture. She shared, “My friend from high school was raped, and instead of getting her the appropriate help, an SRO intervened. She felt even more violated and was trying to kill herself by jumping into traffic….” In this case and many others, direct reports indicate that school deputies worsen the impacts of trauma and abuse rather than giving the kind of support that can only be provided by experienced health professionals.

The Santa Barbara school board not only voted against the renewal of the police contract but also voiced a commitment to more effective forms of support and intervention for all students. San Marcos will still have a line of communication with law enforcement in case if a criminal emergency needed immediate attention, but funds formerly spent on the campus deputy position will be allocated to a new position dedicated to meeting student safety needs using a trauma-informed and restorative lens. As stated by Boardmember Wendy Sims-Moten, “We cannot continue to go forth when we have the opportunity to rethink campus safety … I think this is the opportunity to step up and do what we need to do.”

Unfortunately, brave decisions like these are always followed by pushback. To show support for the school board’s decision, sign the petition at chng.it/WmhbCXQD.


If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or text TALK to 741741.


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