John Oliver on cops in schools: ‘Criminalizes the very essence of childhood’

The Last Week Tonight host breaks down how adding armed ‘resource officers’ overwhelmingly harms students

Two weeks after an 18-year-old shot and killed 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, John Oliver decried one of the most misapplied responses to school shootings in the US: putting police officers in classrooms. “We all know what the key problem is here. It’s guns,” the Last Week Tonight host said. “It’s because we let basically whoever wants to buy a gun in this country have one, which has led to tragic consequences.”

The vast majority of mass shooters, including the one in Uvalde and in Parkland, Florida, in 2018, bought their weapons legally. “So we know what the answer to this problem is, too. It’s gun control. It’s meaningful, effective gun laws,” he said.

“But that hasn’t stopped some from desperately pitching anything other than that as a solution,” he continued, pointing to the annual NRA convention – held in Texas just three days after the massacre – in which leader Wayne LaPierre called for more armed teachers and officers in schools.

“It’s not that surprising that the solution from the CEO of the NRA is more people with guns,” Oliver said. “It’d be like hearing ‘the garbage dump is overflowing, so we need more piles of garbage’ from the head of the National Raccoon Association. I mean, what else do you really expect him to say?”

“The idea of adding police to schools does seem to come up in the wake of every school shooting and crucially, it is then the thing that we always do,” he explained. In the six years after the Columbine school shooting in 1999, the federal government provided more than $750m to the hiring of more than 6,500 “school resource officers.” A 2020 study found that 58% of American schools reported having a law enforcement officer on campus at least once a week.

Meanwhile, other school resources go critically underfunded – a 2019 ACLU report found that 14 million students were in schools with police but no nurse, counselor, psychologist or social worker. “That is 14 million kids who are closer in proximity to a pair of handcuffs than they are to a medical or mental health professional,” Oliver said.

The push for more officers in schools is coming not just from the NRA, but also from scared parents. “I don’t think that all people who believe that police officers make schools safer have bad intentions or are arguing in bad faith,” said Oliver.

“But I do believe that they are wrong. Because for the record, the answer to the question ‘do police in schools deter school shootings?’ is basically no,” he added, pointing to a 2019 study which found that in 179 school shootings over 19 years, there was no evidence that the presence of school resource officers lessened the severity of school shootings.

In fact, they can make them worse, as shooters are often familiar with the armed officer and thus arm themselves more heavily. “If school cops can make shootings worse, why then are we still pitching them as a solution?” Oliver asked. “If Off! discovered that their mosquito repellant attracted mosquitoes, they’d stop selling it, or at the very least rebrand it as a cologne for lonely mosquito bachelors.

“The point is, the evidence for cops in schools deterring school shootings just is not there, and the evidence for the damage they can do is significant,” he continued. School resource officers arrested more than 54,000 students in 2017-2018, the most recent year recorded, and children have been charged with assault for things such as throwing a paper airplane or Skittles and drug possession for carrying a maple leaf. A five-year-old with ADHD had a tantrum and was charged with battery on a police officer, “when clearly the only thing they were guilty of was being a fucking five-year-old,” said Oliver.

And police in schools “tend to behave the same way they behave outside of schools,” he added, which explains why black students account for 31.6% of all arrested students, twice their share of total enrollment. Students with disabilities are almost three times more likely to be arrested, even though kids with developmental disabilities can have difficulty understanding rules and require support staff familiar with their specific needs.

“Getting rid of school police doesn’t mean walking away from school safety. What it means is asking ourselves what really keeps kids safe,” said Oliver, noting that districts could apply the money that “we’re now about to inevitably flood toward school cops” and direct it toward counselors, nurses and other resources that actually help students.

“School police are not the answer to school shootings. The answer to that is gun control,” he concluded. “When we throw more cops into schools as an easy way out of that difficult and necessary conversation, we not only fail to keep our kids safe from gun violence, we condemn them to a system that criminalizes the very essence of childhood.

“Kids deserve to be annoying without being arrested, to be sad and angry without being body slammed,” he continued. “They deserve to have tantrums, throw carrots, do science experiments, talk shit and carve their names into stuff without risking ending up in the back of a police car. They deserve to be curious, to make mistakes, to go a little too far, to be a little too loud – to basically be a fucking kid. And they definitely deserve better than the fundamental lie that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy who can arrest a five-year-old.”


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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