Wisconsin leads nation in referring students to law enforcement

By: - September 28, 2021 1:03 am
School lunchroom middle school

“middle school lunch room — sneak peek in the lunchroom with the sixth graders” Photo by woodleywonderworks CC BY 2.0

In Wisconsin, public school staff called the police on students at twice the national rate from 2017 to 2018. According to a report by the Center for Public Integrity, nine students out of every 1,000 were referred to police, compared to the national rate of 4.5. The report was based on  data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Just three states—New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Virgina—had higher rates of police calls by schools than the Badger State. The analysis included all 50 states, in addition to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Furthermore, the data shows that Black, Native American, Latino and children with disabilities were most often on the receiving end of a police call during the school day. Black and disabled students were actually referred to police at nearly twice the rate of the overall student population, Wisconsin Watch reports.

The role of the police in our society has been under a microscope since the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department in May, 2020. Local Policing is an ongoing series analyzing the culture, tactics and actions of departments big and small across Wisconsin. If you have a story to share about your local police, reach out to reporters Isiah Holmes and Henry Redman at [email protected] and [email protected].

Meanwhile, Native American children in Wisconsin were referred to police more often than in any other state. For indigenous children, the rate was more than three times higher than that of white students. A school in Lakeland led the way for referring Native American children to police in Wisconsin. Lakeland’s assistant principal Levi Massey said the district is aware of the disparity and is trying to foster “a school culture that creates a greater acceptance for all our students.”

Lakeland is collaborating with a UW-Madison researcher on “culturally responsive interventions” to address these disparities. However, many of the rifts within the district are widened by Lakeland’s strained relationship with the Lac du Flambeau reservation. Massey noted that distrust between Lakeland and the tribe  stems from a history of indigenous children in Wisconsin being placed in boarding schools which discouraged ties with their language, culture, and community.

For Black students, referrals to police occurred most often in the Sparta Area School District, Sheboygan Falls, and Portage. Disabled students were most often targeted in White Lake, Webster, Rhinelander, and the Dodgeville school districts. Milwaukee’s rate, 7.2 per 1,000 students, was lower than Wisconsin’s overall rate of nine per 1,000 yet still higher than the national average, as was Madison’s rates of 6.2 per 1,000.

Some school districts acknowledged that work needs to be done to improve equity for minority students. Others, like the Unity School District in Polk County, claimed  that the data inflated the numbers, because law enforcement referral can also cover county social services. Although a police presence in schools is sometimes praised in worst-case scenarios like school shootings, school police officers also respond to minor issues including fights among students, or what essentially amount to temper tantrums.

Many schools, particularly high schools, also have school resource officers with offices in the school building. Students in some schools have to pass through metal detectors to enter the school building, or be subjected to canine searches throughout the year. Officers may also employ quick 50 programs, where students inform on their peers for pay.

According to “Cops and No Counselors,” a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that drew on civil rights data from the Department of Education in 2016,  millions of students were in schools with police officers in the building, but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker.

The report stressed that “schools and decision makers that prioritize law enforcement in schools over [school-based mental health] providers do more harm than good. More law enforcement is not the answer. More student supports, however, is critical.”

The ill effects of over policing youth last into adulthood, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s report. “Black respondents who experience contact with the police by eighth grade have eleven times greater odds of being arrested when they are 20 years old than their white counterparts,” researchers found.


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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.