Recently, the ACLU released Cops and No Counselors: How the Lack of School Mental Health Staff is Harming Students, an analysis of federal data that examines the first state-level student-to-staff ratio comparison of mental health personnel and law enforcement in schools. The data is not surprising.
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The ACLU of Mississippi has been a champion of children’s rights, historically advocating for policies that keep students safe inside schools. Through several reports, we have illuminated the extreme and destructive approaches to school discipline that have harmed students, families, and the community at-large. We have pushed back on efforts to put school resource or law enforcement officers inside schools minus standard training and clear polices that inform their role and responsibilities. We led an advocacy campaign to minimize the use of restraint and seclusion techniques, which the state department of education eventually established a policy in 2016. In addition, we led the Sunflower County Systems Change Project to creative narrative change for young men and boys of color and to establish restorative justice approaches as school policy that would decrease the number of youth court referral cases.
The data strongly suggests that much more work needs to be done. In Mississippi, there are more law enforcement and security guards inside Mississippi schools that nurses, psychologists, and social workers combined. More law enforcement presence leads to a more threatening school climate, and the most vulnerable students funneled into the school to prison pipeline. As a result, students with disabilities and students of color are disproportionately sent into the criminal system.
There are, however, steps that can be taken to provide students with the supports they need.
- Increase funding for student support services, including mental health staffing and programming. Prioritize education funding for student support services over law enforcement.
- Ensure that all schools have at least the recommended staff-to-student ratios for each school-based mental health staff, including as counselors, psychologists, social workers and nurses.
- Provide equal protection for students, ensuring that school discipline and law enforcement involvement is not administered unfairly or in ways that discriminate against students of color, students with disabilities, or others who may face disparate discipline (i.e., LGBTQ students).
- Ensure that law enforcement officers are provided with comprehensive and appropriate training on critical topics, such as child/adolescent development, implicit bias, and de-escalation tactics.
- End practices like school arrests and law enforcement referrals that criminalize youth for common adolescent behaviors, including misdemeanors like disorderly conduct.
- Adopt school codes of conduct that reject zero tolerance policies for more appropriate, child-centered responses to challenging behavior.
With a potential new slate of state leaders coming into office, we can seriously address these inequities. Read the full report at www.aclu.org/copsandnocounselors.