As young people complete the final days of summer vacation and prepare for their return to campus life, no sane person would consider this "back-to-school season" like any other in American history.
This fall, a great many students at the K-12 level will finally set foot into a classroom for the first time in more than a year.
Depending on the school, the student, and the society that surrounds them, this could either be a tantalizing or an agonizing prospect. Some kids truly thrived in the virtual classroom last year and dread going back to in-person learning—others foundered, flailed, and failed and will benefit immensely from a "return to normalcy."
Regardless of the situation, cops across the country will be called upon to keep kids safe in school as young people return to campus for the 2021-2022 school year.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a recommendation that all students in kindergarten through 12th grade—including young people 12-years-old and older who have been fully vaccinated—wear masks when they return to classrooms for the new school year. This could have far-reaching and long-lasting negative effects on kids—and the society they will one day lead.
The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research said in an April 2021 article, "Mask mandates are especially cruel to young children. Adults are supposed to ease their fears, to reassure them that monsters aren’t hiding under the bed. Instead, we’re frightening them into believing they’re being stalked by invisible menaces lurking in the air. A year of mask-wearing will scar some of them psychologically—and maybe physically, too."
Following the CDC announcement, President Joe Biden said, "Masking students is inconvenient, I know, but will allow them to learn and be with their classmates with the best available protection."
Talk about not being able to adequately "read the room."
Speaking of reading the room, I recently attended the school board meeting in my community and witnessed firsthand the ire of the parents who made public comment on the matter of masks for kids.
The differences of opinion were stark and substantial. Cops can count on that cacophony to continue.
Dealing with Parents
Speaking of boisterous board meetings, have you been assigned to one of these events lately? Have you attended as a parent at your child's school?
School board meetings these days range from circus sideshow to all-out sh*t show.
Setting aside the matter of mask mandates, there is the highly contentious issue of introducing Critical Race Theory into the curricula—teaching that interpretation of diversity to kids in subjects as diverse as math, science, and language arts. Needless to say, many parents are none too pleased and have shown this displeasure loudly and often.
Then there's the matter of gender identity—bathrooms, locker rooms, and after-school sports are all impacted by how schools address this. What about state and local government funding for public K-12 schools? What about standardized statewide testing and common core lesson plans? What about teacher salaries and unions and tenure? The list goes on.
Officers on duty when these topics are "discussed" in public forums have to know that it's not much different from holding the line between "pro-choice" and "right-to-life" protesters—lots of emotion and shouting.
Defusing Kids' Disputes
One of the educational elements kids are exposed to in school is learning how to deal with people—how to understand the fact that everyone is different, and yet the same. This happens mostly without incident, but all manner of bullying and conflict is inevitable.
We've seen the headlines—and subsequent public outcry—about an officer having to take a student into custody or make an arrest. No cop wants to do this—police correctly contend that disciplining a child is the responsibility of teachers and administrators—but it sometimes happens.
The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) is a proponent of utilizing "restorative practices" as a means of keeping the peace among students amidst stressful and tumultuous times.
According to the George Lucas Educational Foundation, restorative approaches "address the underlying reasons for students' hurtful behavior and nurture their intrinsic desire to treat others with care and respect" as opposed to the traditional model of "using punishments and rewards to influence the way students behave."
It would be prudent for all officers to become somewhat conversant in how to use "restorative practices" with kids in potentially volatile situations.
Stopping School Shootings
Of course, the king-hell-daddy issue for law enforcement in the educational environment is preventing—and responding to—gunfire in the classroom.
In 2018, Education Week magazine began tracking shootings on K-12 school property that resulted in firearm-related injuries or deaths—there were 24 such incidents that year and 25 in 2019. In 2020, there were 10 campus shooting incidents when the COVID-19 pandemic hit—forcing the overwhelming majority of school-age young people to remote learning for the remainder of that school year and thusly skewing the data.
"Those using this data should note that it should not be interpreted to mean that schools were 'safer' [in 2020-21]." Rather, the definition of school safety has shifted as schooling entered the home in a way it never had before," Education Week said.
Having no kids in schools resulted in no kids getting shot in schools—not exactly the most ideal way to stem school violence, but it was effective.
But kids will be returning to the classroom this year, and it wouldn't be a tremendous leap in logic to predict that some of them will return with a vengeance. Some of these kids will have suffered significant—and possibly permanent—damage to their mental health during the lockdown. Some of these kids who were already on the brink before COVID might be well and truly over the edge.
Local law enforcement officers provide increased safety for the students, faculty, and staff from potentially dangerous criminal behavior.
Local law enforcement must gird for the worst while still hoping for the best. However, the police are the very last line of defense—preventing school shootings is everybody's business.
Everyone in the school ecosystem—teachers, administrators, staff, parents, volunteer organizations, and police—must work together to prevent terrible tragedies from occurring.
NASRO correctly states that "carefully selected, specifically trained, and properly equipped SROs protect and serve students, bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth, and are a positive addition to the community."
It is vitally important to note, however, that police interaction with kids goes way beyond those officers specifically assigned to campus patrol. Youth programs—cadet, explorer, athletic league, summer internships, and others—can go a long way toward creating strong bonds between police and young people that can last a lifetime.
More than a year and a half ago I wrote in this space that police officers "have a truly unique opportunity to be the lighthouse that protects those little ships—our children—giving them immediate safety, guiding them to future security, and finding for them the safe harbor they seek."
As the new school year approaches, every officer on patrol should consider giving some thought to how they might do one small thing to help kids in America navigate through whatever rough waters they encounter.