Groundwork for what would eventually become the Clark County School District Police Department started in 1967 with a few security officers monitoring school property overnight.
In 1971 the Nevada Legislature designated those security officers as peace officers, granting them the power to arrest, and leading to the eventual creation of the Clark County School District Police Department (CCSDPD) in 1989.
With an annual budget of about $21.7 million the department now employs a workforce of 41 civilians and 161 sworn officers, including 16 sergeants, four lieutenants, two captains, and a chief of police.
After national protests over the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, that price tag is now attracting the attention of organizations, students, and parents who are calling on the Clark County School District to disband its police department and use those funds for school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists.
Protests have also amplified long-standing criticism that police presence in schools has fed a school to prison pipeline, concerns that have led school boards to remove police from their schools in several cities, including Madison, Minneapolis, Portland, Oakland, and Denver.
Critics of school policing describe the school to prison pipeline as minors being funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems for behavior that should be handled inside the school, often over policies that criminalize minor infractions of school rules.
Nevada had the 6th highest rate of student arrests in the nation during the 2015-2016 school year, according to data analysis by ACLU of Nevada based on data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC).
In her work representing abused and neglected children for the Children’s Attorneys Project in Clark County and at the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, Kelly Venci Gonzalez said she has seen some questionable actions by school police officers.
The Children’s Attorneys Project has represented five cases where children under the age of 10 were handcuffed by school resource officers.
Two cases that stick in Gonzalez’s memory are that of an 8-year-old boy with a reading disability and a 7-year-old boy in foster care who were both handcuffed because “they were out of control.” Both boys were Black.
“A child under the age of 10 being handcuffed is extremely troubling. It’s a failure of the school system,” Gonzalez said. “They are young, they’re little. There should be a therapeutic approach. There should be a hundred other approaches besides the criminal justice system.”
Minority students are arrested or referred to law enforcement at school at disproportionately higher rates in Nevada, according to the ACLU analysis federal data. Black students were more than twice as likely to be arrested as white students, while Native American students are more than three times as likely to be arrested as white students.
Although Gonzalez advocates for restorative justice and more investment for mental health treatment centers on campus, she said she doesn’t believe school districts could effectively remove school resource officers after growing to depend on them, without replacing their presence with strong mental health and counseling services.
The CCSD board has yet to discuss school policing since recent widespread national protests over police brutality broke out but is scheduled to receive a report on the School Justice Partnership and Clark County School District Police Department at the Thursday, July 9, 2020 public Board meeting.
Superintendent Jesus Jara, however, released a statement last week acknowledging the disparity in referrals to the Department of Juvenile Justice Services between Black students and other students.
In the statement, Jara noted that while referrals decreased overall by 28 percent for the past three years, for Black students, the decrease was only 22 percent.
“At present, we are taking a close look at why that happened so that we can work to address the underlying cause. We are here to educate the children of Clark County, not prepare them for the prison pipeline. Many of those behind prison walls today, across this nation, were failed during their K-12 experience,” Jara said.
Jara did not mention any potential cuts to school police but said that the School Justice Partnership, of which CCSDPS is a part, is an important step in the effort to move towards restorative justice.
“Our officers understand that while they are tasked with keeping our schools and community safe, they are helping our children on the path to a better future. Our commitment to equity and inclusion stands firm,” Jara said.
‘Badge on, pepper spray and tasers on their holster’
Make the Road Nevada, a nonprofit that advocates for the working class and immigrants, is calling on Clark County District to close the Clark County School Police Department by the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year and the immediate removal of police, including school resource officers, from all schools.
“Our message is that we are going to continue our efforts until the school budget is on the CCSD agenda and is talked about,” said Bianca Balderas, a policy director for Make the Road Nevada who is co-steering the group’s campaign for police free schools in Southern Nevada. “We should be talking about defunding school police and reallocating that money to resources for our students.”
“We are seeing examples of all these different school districts ending their relationship with law enforcement,” said Balderas. “We are seeing change, why not be part of that change?”
High School students are organizing with Make the Road Nevada’s Youth Power Project to remove police from schools over what they see as a long pattern of criminalizing students of color.
One of the youth leaders is 17-year-old Aretzy Santiaguin, a senior at Canyon Spring High School in North Las Vegas, a school with a total minority enrollment of 96 percent. The majority of students at her high school — 74 percent — are also economically disadvantaged.
“It seems that the majority of schools that have police officers are primarily black and brown schools, other schools that have predominantly white kids don’t,” said Santiaguin. “The majority of adults don’t really know how it is to actually go to school. We are introduced to police officers as soon as we enter school.”
Santiaguin said she recalls seeing a Black student “dragged to the ground” by a police officer, an encounter that moved her to get politically involved.
“This is a great opportunity to basically spread awareness of what it’s like for us,” she said. “I don’t think having 10 or 20 police officers surrounding the school is beneficial to any kid. We go there to learn and it seems like they’re just waiting for something to happen.”
Adam Allen,18, is another student from Canyon Spring High School who joined Make the Road Nevada and is now campaigning to take police out of schools.
While applying for the University of Southern California, where he was eventually accepted, Allen remembers relying on Youtube videos to learn how to fill out FAFSA and college applications. He’s now calling on CCSD schools to cut school police and move remaining funds to counselors and health workers.
Despite his academic background and after-school activities, Allen said the amount of officers at Canyon Spring made him feel like he was in a prison yard.
“Having school police officers on campus doesn’t make the environment any better,” Allen said. “I’m part of many organizations on campus and I’m very involved in my school community and I know school police don’t make the environment any better. They just walk around campus, badge on, pepper spray and tasers on their holster.”
In Northern Nevada, ACLU of Nevada is seeking a reduction of officers in the Washoe County School District Police Department. The Washoe County School District (WCSD) has its own police department funded through the district’s general funds — a total of about $5 million during the last fiscal year.
“While we understand that school districts and police departments have the best interest of students in mind, the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks clearly illustrate the potential dangers of police interactions,” wrote ACLU of Nevada criminal justice fellow Nick Shepack and policy director Holly Welborn in a letter to the Washoe County School Board of Trustees.
“Now more than ever, school boards should shift funding away from school police and towards school-based mental health professionals such as school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists.”
This story was updated to reflect that the ACLU of Nevada letter to the Washoe County School Board of Trustees was written by ACLU of Nevada criminal justice fellow Nick Shepack and policy director Holly Welborn.