THE BLOG

Who Will Protect the Students From the Guards?

01/02/2013 04:26 pm ET | Updated Mar 04, 2013
  • Jason Silverstein Writing a book on empathy for Simon & Schuster. Teaching Fellow in Anthropology at Harvard.

What good is the protection of guards if we need protection from the guards? Last week, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio announced a plan to send armed volunteers, including Steven Seagal, to guard Phoenix-area schools. "I think it's the appropriate time to utilize this free resource to try to prevent any more massacres," Arpaio said. But Maricopa County's police practices are not without controversy -- and I wonder what is the cost of their protection, and who must pay it. Currently, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) faces at least three lawsuits that allege racial profiling, including one by the U.S. Department of Justice. Beyond the MCSO, Arizona is no exception to the nationwide school-to-prison pipeline, which disproportionately polices and punishes minority students. If we intensify the policing of schools without eliminating racial disparities in criminal justice, we will only intensify the burden some children are forced to bear in the name of saving others.

The latest racial profiling lawsuit against the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) was filed by Blake Edward Smalley, a 21-year-old black Arizona State University student. Last September, two deputies confronted Smalley at a gas station near a convenience store. As an Arizona Republic story reports, a deputy yelled at Smalley that "'people like him' did not belong there, implying that because [he] was African-American that he could not go into a convenience store in a 'white' neighborhood." Smalley ultimately spent 15 hours in custody before he was released and his charges dismissed by the Superior Court.

In May, the U.S. Department of Justice also sued the MCSO, alleging it has "intentionally and systematically discriminated against Latinos" since 2006. In its Findings Letter, the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ reports unconstitutional crime suppression sweeps. These sweeps targeted locations "because of complaints by non-Latino residents that there are Latinos in those areas." Most people stopped in these sweeps committed no crime. They also found that the MSCO's Criminal Employment Squad (CES), an immigration enforcement unit, detained more people than permitted by their search warrants with no legal justification. And both of these lawsuits follow the one filed by Manuel De Jesus Ortega Melendres, which has since been expanded into a class-action case that includes every single Latino driver stopped by the county since 2007. While Arpaio and MCSO may have a legal authority to guard Phoenix-area schools, there are real questions about their moral ability to fairly do so.

Will an increased police presence worsen the school-to-prison pipeline that already unfairly diverts black and Latino children into the criminal justice system? We know, according to the ACLU Foundation of Arizona, racial disparities intensify at each stage of the juvenile justice process, from referrals to secure detention to intensive probation to commitment to Juvenile Corrections to trial as an adult. In 2009, African-American children made up 18 percent of the total number of juveniles tried as adults, even though they made up only 4 percent of the population. In the same year, Latinos made up 57 percent of the kids tried in an adult court, even though they only made up 30 percent of the population.

And racial profiling is not the only ethical issue that Arizona's juvenile justice system faces. Recently, Arizona's school-to-prison pipeline has come under additional scrutiny, as local Casa Grande police have conducted school drug sweeps with guards employed by Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest for-profit prison company. We should not let the nobility of a goal, such as protecting our children, wash clean unethical practices used to achieve it.

In calling for armed guards in school, Sheriff Joe Arpaio is not alone. In the wake of Newtown, Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr., Henry County, Tenn., Sheriff Monte Belew, and Mayor Jonathan Hornik of Marlboro Township New Jersey have also joined the NRA's controversial call for armed guards in schools. "It doesn't matter whether they like it or don't like it," Arpaio said in an interview with ABC News/Univision. "I'm still going to do it. I can't imagine criticism coming when they're given free protection."

When actions are framed as a public good, ethical objections too often get dismissed as inconvenient. Ethics is seen as a barrier to safety, and the inconvenience of a few is traded for the safety of the many. But there is little evidence that armed guards would stop a school shooting, either by trained professionals or willing citizens. On the other hand, we have seen evidence that certain police practices unfairly profile citizens -- and even the children we are moved more than ever to protect. If we introduce armed guards into our schools without addressing racial profiling, we risk producing more problems for our children in the name of protecting them.