This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and USA TODAY.

Since the summer of 2020, there has been a lasting national focus on the relationship between the police and Black people in this country. One of the bigger conversations has surrounded the role of police officers in society and how that could be changed.

Though they don’t immediately come to mind at the designation “police officer,” the position of “school resource officer” or “school safety officer” has widely existed in schools since 1999, in response to the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado. But their presence in schools hasn’t always been positive.

In 46 states, Black students were referred to law enforcement at higher rates than the total rate of referrals for all students across the country, according to federal data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity.

The national average showed 4.5 law enforcement referrals per 1,000 students. On average, 8.4 Black students per 1,000 saw a law enforcement referral.  

Unfortunately, they aren’t the only demographic in this category. Students with disabilities in every state, Native American students in 32 states, Hispanic students in 21 states and white students in eight states all had referral rates higher than the total rate of referrals nationwide.

The data is from a Center for Public Integrity project called “Criminalizing Kids,” and this story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity and USA TODAY.

The states with the highest referrals of Black students per 1,000 enrolled Virginia (25.7), Pennsylvania (23.6), New Hampshire (22.3), South Dakota (20.2) and Wisconsin (20).

“Rather than preventing crime, [school police officers] have been linked with increased arrests for noncriminal, youthful behavior, fueling the school-to-prison pipeline,” according to an April 2021 report from The Brookings Institution. 

The school-to-prison pipeline is not a new concept. Back in 2015, Vox wrote an explainer saying that, “especially for older students, trouble at school can lead to their first contact with the criminal justice system. And in many cases, schools themselves are the ones pushing students into the juvenile justice system — often by having students arrested at school by School Resource Officers.”

“The presence of police in schools, I believe, is fueled by a dehumanization of children of color, which suggests that there needs to be a constant surveillance of these children in schools,” author Monique Morris told NPR.

Check out this timeline of policing in schools from Knight Lab.

So how did we get here? Why are — or were — police a common, often unquestioned presence in public schools across the country?

The number of police in schools grew out of the fear of school shootings. But a 2018 Washington Post investigation of nearly 200 school shootings identified only two examples of a school police officer successfully intervening. 

The investigation also found that Black students made up only 16.6% of the school population but experienced 34% of school shootings, or twice the rate. While media attention is mostly focused on shootings at predominantly white schools, the Post wrote, “children of color are far more likely to experience campus gun violence — nearly twice as much for Hispanic students and three times as much for black students.”

“There isn’t much evidence indicating that police officers in schools make schools safer,” Dominique Parris, with the research organization Child Trends, told NPR. “What they do do is increase the likelihood that Black and brown children are going to be involved in the legal system early and often.” 

There are alternatives to having police officers in schools. Portland Public Schools said it will stop the “regular presence” of school resource officers, instead bringing in more social workers, counselors and “culturally specific supports for students.” In Oakland, a group called the Black Organizing Project proposed taking officers out of schools and restructuring roles so security personnel were “housed within a department that is aligned with the equity, restorative justice and trauma-informed practices.” 

“For systems, especially like a public school system, I get it,” Letha Muhammad, who directs the Education Justice Alliance, told Chalkbeat, “that it could be a scary idea to be the one to step out and do something different.”