Jurisprudence

School Police Don’t Stop Shootings, so What Are They For?

A police officer visits a makeshift memorial outside the Uvalde County Courthouse in Uvalde, Texas on May 27, 2022.
A police officer visits a makeshift memorial outside the Uvalde County Courthouse in Uvalde, Texas, on May 27. Chandan Khanna/Getty Images

This story was produced in partnership with the Garrison Project, an independent, nonpartisan organization addressing the crisis of mass incarceration and policing.

Each day following the elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which left 19 children and two teachers dead, new details emerge about the police response. New reporting has made clear that the police held back for over an hour while the gunman fired his AR-15-style rifle nearly 200 times. When asked why the police delayed entering the school—while children called 911 repeatedly, begging for help—a lieutenant for the Texas Department of Public Safety said, “If they proceeded any further not knowing where the suspect was at, they could’ve been shot, they could’ve been killed.”

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Uvalde, a small town in Texas of less than 20,000 people, spends 40 percent of its budget on police; its department has its own part-time SWAT team. While police delayed engaging with the shooter, distraught parents attempting to find their kids were handcuffed and tased. Law enforcement officials’ initial accounts of the mass shooting have changed repeatedly: At first, officials said police encountered the gunman as he entered the school, and later said that he walked in behind a teacher who left a door propped open. Both of those statements have been proven false, and Texas Department of Public Safety has said the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District Police have stopped cooperating with their probe. The U.S. Department of Justice announced a “Critical Incident Review” into the police response.

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The excruciating 78-minute timeline in Uvalde echoes the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in which 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz has been charged with shooting and killing 17 people and injuring 17 others. Scot Peterson, a Broward County Sheriff’s Office deputy and school resource officer, “never entered or attempted to enter” the building and remained in his position outside the school for approximately 48 minutes, according to a 2019 report from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. Peterson faces 11 criminal charges including felony child neglect. “I didn’t do anything wrong that day at all,” Peterson says in his defense.

The police response to both shootings has garnered widespread scrutiny and outrage, as parents questioned why law enforcement failed to immediately engage the shooters, as they have been trained to do since the deadly school shooting in Columbine, Colorado. Officials in both cases have responded to the backlash with conflicting messages about their approach. Their actions before, during, and after both shootings raise critical questions about the role of police in school shootings, and if the purpose of police in schools is to protect students—or solely to punish them.

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These questions follow a national reckoning over policing, during which several cities including Minneapolis and Oakland disbanded their school police departments. But many state and federal elected officials responded to broader calls to “defund the police” and divert money into violence prevention by beefing up police budgets and expanding the police ranks. But the tragedies in Uvalde and Parkland show that increased spending and more officers in schools doesn’t prevent violence or save lives. That’s because we have a fundamental misconception about the role of police: While most people think that police have a duty to attempt to protect people from harm, the law has been clear—cops have no such duty.

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A little-scrutinized 2018 lawsuit filed in federal court by more than a dozen Parkland-shooting survivors against the cops and other officials they say failed to protect them paints a picture of police officers more concerned with punishing students for minor infractions than in protecting them from harm. Possibly because the students’ lawsuit was dismissed not long after they filed it, some of Peterson’s actions that day have gone unreported, including the fact that the morning of the Parkland massacre, he was not engaged in important public safety functions. Instead, according to the lawsuit, he was conducting a fruitless and unlawful search of students’ backpacks, looking for drugs.

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T.M., a sophomore, arrived at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at approximately 7:43 a.m. on Feb. 14, 2018, a few minutes late for the first bell. The student, who was identified only by his initials in the lawsuit because he was a minor, was escorted to the front office almost immediately. There, he joined about 10 to 15 other students who were waiting to be questioned by school administrators. The 15-year-old, who had never been in trouble at school, was not told why he was there. When administrators searched T.M.’s backpack, they found $200, and referred the boy to Peterson, who took the money from him and accused him of selling drugs. T.M. insisted the money was for taking his girlfriend out that night for a Valentine’s Day dinner.

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“Defendant Peterson told T.M. that he could search everyone in T.M.’s weight training class and that he only needed one student to say they got it from T.M. in order to pin it on him,” the lawsuit notes. At 9:30 a.m., Peterson called T.M.’s mom, who again told the deputy that the money was for the dinner. “Defendant Peterson asserted that T.M. is not manly enough to own up to what he did and that he doesn’t like students like T.M. because they look good on paper but are actually really bad kids,” the lawsuit noted.

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When Peterson found a Beats headphones case in T.M.’s backpack, “he was like oh, this is where you hide your drugs and this is where like, you keep your stash so we can’t find it,” T.M. said in a sworn deposition in the case, “and I was like not really. It’s just for my headphones.” In the end, Peterson found no drugs or paraphernalia, only unsigned late passes in the boy’s bag. After detaining T.M. for about two hours, during which he told T.M.’s mother that her son was “going to be watched like a hawk at the school,” Peterson gave the money back, and sent the boy to in-school suspension for the day.

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Peterson partly saw his role as enforcing “the prevention of juvenile delinquency,” according to court documents. He had been with the Broward County Sheriff’s Office for 32 years and “was known in certain law enforcement circles as ‘Rod’ which is an acronym for ‘retired on duty’ due to the lackadaisical nature with which he approached the task.”

At 2:19 p.m, just hours after Peterson conducted the morning’s search of students that had yielded little more than unsigned late passes, Cruz allegedly entered the high school armed with an AR-15-style rifle in a duffel bag. After the alleged killing spree, Cruz shed his rifle and vest and walked out of the school, making several stops at fast food restaurants before being stopped on a residential street more than an hour after the shooting started.

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T.M. was one of 15 plaintiffs who sued Peterson, Broward County, and other school and police officials including then–Broward Sheriff Scott Israel in 2018 for “arbitrary and conscience-shocking actions and inactions” that “directly and predictably caused children to die, get injured, and get traumatized.”

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But late that year, a district judge ruled that, contrary to a widely held understanding that police have a duty to protect people, the police have no constitutional duty to do so. In December 2020, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that decision, adding that police have no duty to protect people unless they are in their custody, and saying that in situations where “split-second judgments are required, an official’s conduct will shock the conscience only when it stems from a ‘purpose to cause harm.’ ”

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“After all,” the judges wrote, quoting a decision they used as a precedent, “ ‘not every injury is an injury of constitutional magnitude.’ ” That case involved someone in police custody: A 67-year-old man with dementia attempted to enter a nearby trailer that wasn’t his, and when the trailer’s occupants called police, they arrested the man and took him to jail, where he was severely beaten by his cellmate. When his family sued the guards, the court dismissed the suit, ruling that their actions didn’t rise above mere negligence.

Research has shown that schools with police officers have higher arrest rates and suspension rates than those without, and that Black children are arrested at disproportionately high rate. After Parkland, the Florida Legislature allocated $97.5 million for more school resource officers—which failed to prevent or intervene in the Parkland shooting—and allowed school staff to volunteer as “armed guardians.” A 2020 University of Florida report linked the rise in police presence at schools to increased arrests of students and reporting of children to law enforcement, “particularly for less severe infractions and among middle schoolers.”

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In the immediate aftermath of the Parkland shooting, it seemed like there could be accountability for the officials involved in decision-making that day. In 2019, Israel was suspended by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and then later removed from his post. But just weeks before the Uvalde shooting, Israel was named police chief of Opa-locka, Florida, a city of 15,000 in Miami-Dade County.

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Police in Uvalde are likely to face similar lawsuits, criminal complaints, and disciplinary actions as the Parkland officials came up against in the aftermath of the Marjory Douglas shooting. But the outcome of the Parkland student survivors’ 2018 lawsuit makes clear that the legal standard for police for protecting people in a crisis is a far cry from what most Americans expect.

“It is clear that the current approach to public safety for students and staff—which revolves around policing—is not an adequate approach to preventing or responding to these devastating tragedies,” said Philip McHarris, a researcher at Princeton who studies policing. “We need to address the root causes of why these tragedies continue to occur and develop alternative approaches to safety that put students and staff first.”

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