Ray Carter | May 17, 2023

Oklahoma school-security effort portrayed as racist

Ray Carter

Legislation to fund increased security in Oklahoma public schools drew strong opposition from a handful of Democratic lawmakers who said gun control and school counselors should be the focus instead with one Democrat suggesting school security officers excessively target racial minorities.

“I’ll be a strong ‘no’ today in putting more police presence in schools across the state of Oklahoma when I think about the devastating effects and the increase in our incarceration rates that this is sure to bring,” said state Sen. Carri Hicks, D-Oklahoma City.

House Bill 2903 would establish a three-year pilot program called the School Resource Officer (SRO) Program. The school security officers participating in the program would be required to complete active-shooter emergency response training.

House Bill 2904 appropriates $150 million for the program to be divided in installments of $50 million per year for three years. Each school district in Oklahoma is expected to receive about $96,000.

State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, a Muskogee Republican and former school administrator who carried the bill in committee, said school officials have requested funding for school security personnel more than any other form of security measure.

“I’ve got grandkids in two school districts,” Pemberton said. “When they get off that bus in the morning, I want to make damn sure they get back on that bus in the afternoon. I want somebody there to take care of them.”

But Hicks, who is white, argued that black students would be unfairly targeted by on-site security in schools.

“Studies have also found that an increased police presence, the use of aggressive search tactics, and police violence negatively affect students’ academic performance,” Hicks said. “Male students of color were most likely to be negatively impacted by stricter school policy.”

She said some minority students are arrested and incarcerated for trivial offenses.

“When I think about my own son who is eight years old—dropped him off at school this morning—I could never imagine that he could potentially be arrested at school for something as simple as ‘refusal to comply.’ I’m citing a specific case that happened about three years ago where an eight-year-old black male student went through that exact situation.”

State Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, said the money should be spent on social workers and counselors instead of security, and she also called for gun control.

“If we are unwilling to address access (to) and proliferation of guns in our community, we are not addressing the root cause,” Kirt said. “These funds can’t address safety of children if we know the violence is in our communities. There’s wide access to guns. These funds are not the right approach to the root of the problem.”

Those arguments, particularly Hicks’ comments about security officers, drew strong pushback.

“I know a lot of SROs,” said state Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond. “They’re not just cops walking down hallways, shoving kids into lockers.”

“We’re not putting people there to abuse kids,” Pemberton said. “We’re putting people there to protect kids, to give the ability to confront a violent issue on site.”

“There’s a lot of different things that schools have to contemplate in ensuring that their schools are safe and secure,” said state Sen. John Michael Montgomery, R-Lawton. “It’s not just school counselors and that sort of thing. You have to have a hardened infrastructure to protect the building and the students that are inside of it, the teachers that are there.”

This year’s budget, if approved, will result in a greater overall increase in state appropriations to public schools in five years than what occurred in the 25 years prior to 2019. Montgomery said the historic level of funding can be used to hire counselors if school officials believe that is necessary.

“Guys, we’re moving a mountain of money here,” Montgomery said. “If these school districts want to pay for counseling and that sort of thing for these students, then they can do that.”

State Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, attempted to indirectly defend her fellow Democrat.

“Just to be clear, no one—no one—is criticizing SROs,” Floyd said. “That’s not happening.”

She also called for making gun control “part of the discussion.”

Hicks’ comments echoed talking points made by teacher union officials. In 2021, several featured speakers at an online Oklahoma Aspiring Educators Association’s Racial and Social Justice Symposium decried the use of school security in public schools.

“Police were brought into schools—have always been brought into schools—as a way to oppress, suppress, beat, and harm our black, indigenous, and students of color—historically, always,” Erika Chavarria, an NEA Social Justice Activist finalist for 2017, told Oklahoma attendees.

After the content of the symposium became public, several Oklahoma law enforcement officials criticized the union event, saying it could undermine school-safety efforts.

A 2021 report from the National Police Foundation reported there have been 170 incidents of averted school violence since 1999 with those cases involving the prevention of planned mass violence attacks at a school. That figure included four cases of averted school violence in Oklahoma.

The report stated, “School resource officers, security personnel, and law enforcement play a critical role in preventing school attacks.”

(The Oklahoma Aspiring Educators Association is an affiliate of the Oklahoma Education Association, which is the state’s largest teacher union and the state affiliate of the National Education Association.)

HB 2903 passed the Senate half of the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget on a 17-3 vote. Floyd, Hicks, and Kirt were the only opponents.

Those voting in favor of the bill included state Sen. Kevin Matthews, a Tulsa Democrat who is the only black lawmaker serving on the committee, and state Sen. Michael Brooks, an Oklahoma City Democrat who is a former board chair of the Latino Community Development Agency Board of Directors.

HB 2904 passed on an 18-2 vote. Hicks and Kirt were the only opponents.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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