A grassroots group in Gwinnett County wants to replace School Resource Officers (SROs) with counselors, restorative justice practitioners, and community intervention workers. The group is called the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline or Gwinnett STOPP. Co-founder Marlyn Tillman says having officers in schools doesn’t necessarily make them safer.
“I don’t know you feel safe with that armed position,” Tillman says. “Most students don’t, and particularly Black and brown students do not because they are harassed in the community. They are traumatized by police in the community. That’s not a welcoming image in their school.”
Data show schools with officers are more likely to refer students to law enforcement. In addition, Black children are more likely to be arrested in school than other students, according to an analysis by the Education Week Research Center.
“If a child has some type of an emotional breakdown or needs some emotional support, we’re calling the police and hauling them out and arresting them?” Tillman says. “Is that what should be happening?”
A press release from Gwinnett STOPP says students should feel emotionally safe to learn and make mistakes and that it’s incumbent on the school district to create a climate and culture of care and nurturing. It adds: “During this time in our nation’s history, the public has re-examined the role of police in our communities,” in reference to national protests to the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Rayshard Brooks.
The Gwinnett County School Police says its mission, “…is to provide a safe, secure learning and working environment to allow for the pursuit of excellence in academic knowledge, skills and behavior,” according to a statement on its website.
Gwinnett Schools Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks has said SROs ensure safety and cultivate relationships with students through mentoring and counseling. He said the community supports the program and the district plans to keep SROs in place.
Tillman, however, plans to persist. She says Gwinnett STOPP is considering its next steps, which could include introducing a proposal to the school board. The group’s petition has more than 200 signatures so far.
“So we’re looking at, ‘How do we move this ball down the field?’” Tillman says. “We know that you’re not going to just up and dismantle your department. There are things that have to be in place and allow you to do it. But you have to make the commitment.”