Police Are Being Removed From Schools for Sexual Assault
Bad faith actors claim that school resource officers keep schools safe, but their survivors would likely claim otherwise.
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In 2014, Dothan, Alabama police officer Lanice Bonds pleaded guilty to having sex with a 16-year-old student from Dothan High School, where he worked as a school resource officer (SRO) for over six years. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Three years later, at the same school, another resource officer, Adrian Folmar, was arrested for engaging in a sex act with a 17-year-old student. As investigations progressed, another victim was found, and this time, she was 14 years old.
Bonds and Folmar appear to be part of a wider pattern of school resource officers being removed from their positions due to sexual misconduct. In late 2021, an anonymous source reached out to DAME with data collected from local news reports. Within that data alone, which DAME fact-checked, at least 440 school children have been sexually abused by school police at their school in the last 20 years. After consulting experts in the field and assessing the accuracy of this small sample size, DAME concludes that incidents of police sexual misconduct in schools are likely underreported.
This data reveals the abuses of power police are capable of in an educational setting, despite arguments that police make kids in schools safer by Republican elected officials like Senator Ted Cruz. While the reality of school shootings calls for action and new policy, current policies to place police in schools raise questions about accountability, access to victims, and power dynamics between children and state authorities. The numbers cited above indicate that there is widespread systemic abuse of power by police in schools, thus disputing the idea that police make children in school safer.
Both Bonds and Folmar were charged with the same Class B felony in Alabama: a school employee having sexual contact with a student under the age of 19 years. In the case of Bonds, this charge was disputed with the claim that the offending resource officer was not a school employee; rather, he was employed by the City of Dothan as a police officer and was paid by the city.
According to court documents, Bonds presented a memo from the Dothan chief of police that states that resource officers “are obligated to the Chain of Command of the Dothan Police Department and not to the administration of the school to which they are assigned.” Though Bonds’ appeal failed and he ultimately pleaded guilty, his defense demonstrates one of the problems with stationing police officers in schools—though this varies state by state and county by county, SROs are generally accountable to the police station and the city they work for rather than the school.
Andrea J. Ritchie, a police misconduct attorney and organizer whose writing, litigation, and advocacy have focused on the policing and criminalization of women of color, explains that this makes it difficult for police in schools to be held accountable for misconduct.
“Generally speaking, in my experience, school resource officers are under the control of the police department and not under the control of the school,” Ritchie says. “In one case in New York City, the principal intervened in incidents involving the police and a student, and the principal got arrested. So it’s really clear in those instances who’s in charge, it’s the cop in the police department. So they’re accountable to nobody.”
The hiring of resource police officers in schools started in the 1950s, but the practice only became widespread in the 1990s. The presence of SROs in education establishments has widely been credited to the 1999 Columbine shooting, supported by the idea that officers in schools are able to protect students from an active shooter as school shootings became more commonplace. After school shootings, it is routine for Republican politicians to demand armed cops be stationed in schools, claiming this will make children safer. However, according to a report by Learning for Justice, zero-tolerance policies spurred SRO programs in schools in the 1980s, in response to the perceived threat that school-based crime was on the rise. As a result and with the context of the War on Drugs gaining media space at the time, surveillance, metal detectors and other security measures increased in public schools, paving the way for SRO programs. In 2017, police officers were present in at least half of schools nationwide.
There isn’t much research about police sexual misconduct in schools, but some scholars have tried to make sense of the issue. F. Chris Curran writes that SROs are rarely arrested, but when they are, it’s usually because of sexual misconduct. According to 2017 research by Philip Stinson and Adam M. Watkins using the 48 search terms developed by Stinson on Google News Alerts, there were 32 arrests of school resource officers between 2005 and 2011 for sexual misconduct. Over half (56 percent) of these incidents occurred with students in the officers’ own schools. A study commissioned by the US Department of Education revealed that out more than 30,000 public schools that had police present during this period, there were fewer than five arrests of school resource officers per year for sexual misconduct. Stinson and Watkins’ study also emphasizes that police officers tend to not arrest other officers, often ignoring minor transgressions by their colleagues, whereas regular citizens doing similar transgressions would be arrested for their crimes. The data obtained by DAME suggests the number of sexual misconduct by SROs cases is much greater.
Ritchie says data like this is likely just the tip of the iceberg. According to the author and researcher, who has written a book about police violence against Black girls and trans folks, we are only able to access around 25 percent of police sexual misconduct cases in schools because of a gap in research around gender-based violence experienced by Black, brown, Indigenous, queer, and trans young people.
“Three quarters of rapes aren’t reported; imagine how much higher that number is when the person that sexually assaulted you is the person you’re supposed to report it to,” Ritchie said. “I want to emphasize just how routine and mundane this is.”
Since 1975, the number of police in schools has risen from 1 percent to 48 percent, according to a 2021 study by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington. This rise is largely connected to the increase in school shootings in the last three decades, and nationally, the federal government has invested more than $1 billion to subsidize the placement of police in schools, resulting in more than 46,000 SROs patrolling hallways, according to the same study. Despite federal efforts to make schools safer, the evidence that SROs stop school shootings is scarce but research shows that an increase in arrests in schools is directly correlated to the presence of SROs. The arrest rates for schools with SROs were 3.5 times the rate of those without SROs, and in some states the arrest rates are as much as eight times the rate of schools without, which advocates say fuels the school-to-prison pipeline.
Ritchie created a searchable database recording cases of police violence against women of color to make this kind of violence visible. According to her database, 20 percent of reported police violence against women of color involved sexual violence—but there aren’t similar numbers to demonstrate the breadth of the problem for girls of color in educational settings specifically.
“There’s just not that much attention to sexual violence that young people are experiencing,” Ritchie said. “Particularly if they’re Black, brown, and Indigenous. And then again, police sexual violence is not something that people want to think about if they are thinking about cops as the way to make schools safer.”
In the wake of the Uvalde shooting in Texas, it’s easy to demand the placement of armed police in schools for the protection of children who should have the simple privilege of going to school safely. However, Uvalde is the latest example of how authorities work to police civilians rather than protect them: after failing to stop the shooter from getting inside the school, ICE was called to the scene. Though federal immigration officials have declared undocumented parents won’t be detained, the possibility of detainment and deportation during such a tragedy is unhelpful and terrifying.
School shootings are, unfortunately, a reality that Americans must face. However, the suggestion of placing police in schools—and the power police have over children, particularly those of color—should be thoroughly questioned.
In Dothan High School, where two SROs were removed from their positions for sexual misconduct in 2014 and 2018, another pattern can be observed. While removal of officers is possible, there isn’t a system or a reporting mechanism that prevents new SROs from committing new cases of sexual misconduct. For Ritchie, after 20 years of advocacy against police violence against women and girls, the only solution is to take cops out of schools.
“The only way to even stop police violence is to get cops out of a situation, or take their power away,” she says. “Policing has no place in school or in a learning environment, where it’s a space to cherish and support young people, a place for exploring, growth, learning, creativity and learning to be in relationship with each other in a healthy, safe and transformative way.”
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