As debates nationwide focus on police reform and issues of equity, a new report from the Center for Research on Inclusion and Social Policy at the IU Public Policy Institute examines equity in school policing within Indiana’s largest school district.
The latest report is a follow-up from a study in 2015. That’s when Indianapolis Public Schools asked PPI to assess the IPS Police Department and identify opportunities to collaborate with staff and administrators.
Five years later, IPS returned to PPI to have a team evaluate IPS PD’s practices and recommend changes that could provide a safe environment, and help students succeed.
“As in-school policing becomes increasingly commonplace, it is critical to understand how these practices affect academic and social outcomes, specifically for students of color,” said Roxy Lawrence, CRISP’s director of evaluation. “We hope this research sheds light on how IPS PD polices impact students while also providing a roadmap for the district on how to address these disparities in meaningful and equitable ways.”
CRISP researchers surveyed and interviewed members of IPS PD, school administrators, staff, teachers, students, and parents/caregivers. They also reviewed IPS PD’s operating procedures and case record data before presenting their findings to the IPS school board meeting on September 21, 2021.
FINDINGS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
Arrest rate disparities
National research has shown that Black and Hispanic/Latinx students are consistently disciplined in disproportionately higher numbers than white students. These incidents can significantly impact a student’s future and their academic success.
While the overall number of students arrested by IPS PD has declined since 2016, Black students still have the highest arrest rates in the district and are seven times more likely to be arrested than white students.
The research team recommended the district dig deeper into why Black students are arrested at higher rates, including looking at attendance, truancy, disruptive behaviors, academic progress, and other demographics. They also suggest looking outside of school for information that could shed additional light on student behavior. Doing this, they say, will allow the district and IPS PD to search for potential connections between behaviors and develop more remedial programs to support Black students.
Governance and oversight
Among the study’s other key findings was a look at IPS PD’s guidance for its policing practices. One that was noticeably absent was a protocol for when officers should—and should not—use force against students. Since use-of-force procedures are not clearly outlined in the department handbook, it is also not clear how officers currently use these practices.
In addition, the district’s policies don’t clearly define the difference between basic student misbehavior—which should be handled by teachers or administrators—and criminal behavior, which falls to officers. This creates confusion for teachers and officers alike and can strain their relationship. It can also increase the likelihood of students getting arrested for minor misbehaviors.
“If it is not police-related—like telling a student they are out of dress code or things that should be handled administratively— we will not get involved,” one member of IPS PD said. “A lot of the staff and even principals do not understand that we are coming from a point of view where the law is concerned, and we are restricted by the law. If we step over those bounds, we run the risk of violating civil rights.”
The research team recommends that IPS and IPS PD work to clearly define what constitutes student misbehavior versus criminal activity, who is responsible for handling which violations, and how those violations should be handled. Once those guidelines have been established, the team also recommends the district host meetings before the school year begins with school staff and IPS PD to clarify these roles.
Perception of IPS PD officers
Overall, 88% of IPS PD members felt they collaborated effectively with school staff—but only 61% of staff felt the same. That difference carried over into student and caregiver perceptions. Only 40% of caregivers and 42% of students said IPS officers tried to engage with them outside of addressing behavioral concerns, while 86% of IPS PD felt they had a positive relationship with students and families.
Part of the issue may lie in the fact that IPS students, staff, and caregivers mostly view IPS PD only as law enforcers, rather than the combination of law enforcers, educators, and informal counselors. As opposed to police officers, trained school resource officers fill all three of those roles.
However, this disconnect opens the door for the district to make positive changes. Analysts recommend IPS create opportunities for students and caregivers to interact with officers outside of safety-related situations. They also say it would be worthwhile to consider shifting the perception of IPS PD away from being only police officers and instead train them to become true SROs. Doing so could foster a more positive environment for students.
Trainings and professional development
Lastly, the research team noted that IPS PD does provide school-based policing training opportunities for members of IPS PD. However, they don’t require ongoing racial equity training. Adding this into their professional development plans would provide IPS PD members an opportunity to reflect on unconscious biases that can affect their work while allowing the department to develop intentional opportunities for reflection and accountability. In addition, while the department already hosts restorative justice conferences, they noted there was a lack of consistency in the approach along with a lack of buy-in from staff, students, and caregivers.
Analysts recommend the district provide more learning opportunities for IPS PD, especially on topics such as child and adolescent development, trauma-informed care, working with students with disabilities, and issues of racial equity and systemic justice.
Doing this could better equip officers to work with a diverse group of students and can strengthen the department’s use of restorative justice practices as an alternative to a punishment-based approach.
FULL IPS PD BRIEF
To read the entire policy brief about IPS PD, the team’s finding, and its recommendations to the IPS leaders, visit the IU Public Policy website.