Police chiefs have defended a 43% year-on-year rise in the number of officers based in UK schools.
The Runnymede Trust race equality think tank found 979 Safer Schools Officers (SSOs) in schools last spring, compared with 683 in 2021.
It found SSOs are more likely to be based in schools with higher numbers of children on free school meals, often with higher numbers of black pupils.
But the National Police Chiefs’ Council says SSOs play an essential role.
The Runnymede Trust gathered the Freedom of Information data following the case of Child Q, a 15-year-old black girl who was strip-searched by the Metropolitan Police at school without an appropriate adult present.
Children from ethnic minority groups are up to three times more likely to be strip-searched by police after an arrest than white children, according to Met Police data.
Police officers have worked in schools for decades and were formally introduced in the Safer Schools Partnership programme in 2002.
The programme is something schools can choose to sign up to. Depending what schools ask for, SSOs might offer assemblies, workshops or provide drop-in sessions for pupils.
But some campaigners and community leaders are worried SSOs are doing more harm than good.
Dr Shabna Begum, head of research at the Runnymede Trust, is concerned schools could be leaning too heavily on police to sort out “quite trivial” behavioural or pastoral problems that should be dealt with by teaching staff.
If this is happening, black children may face harsher consequences – creating a pathway to the criminal justice system.
Race equality activists say this problem is often the result of adultification – when black children are more likely to face tougher punishments at school because they are viewed as less innocent.
But Metropolitan Police Commander Catherine Roper, NPCC lead for children and young people, says the role of SSOs is vital.
“It’s an opportunity to work with children and young persons in a secure environment, to build up that trust and confidence, start those conversations, to build up that rapport,” she said.
She says SSOs can help to support children who might be vulnerable to exploitation, such as county lines drugs operations.
Cdr Roper has seen pupils speak to SSOs if they were scared or worried about something that they did not feel they could talk to their families about.
“[SSOs] being in and around schools is to help children and young persons to feel safe,” she says.
I went to meet a 16-year-old girl and her mum at their home in London to talk about her “frightening” and “isolating” experience involving police.
Jorja (not her real name) was arrested at school when she was 14.
Officers came to her school and arrested her on suspicion of grievous bodily harm, after she tried to pull a girl away from a fight. Another girl was later charged and convicted of assault.
Jorja spent 10 hours locked in a police cell.
“It was weird because I was the only female in the van and they were [grown-ups],” she said.
“I felt quite helpless that even my mum couldn’t take me to the police station. I felt like I was being incriminated when I didn’t do anything.”
Jorja’s mum says she was terrified when she turned up after the school had called her.
“She was in a room, locked in a room. They took off her jacket and went into her pockets. They had on gloves,” she said.
“It was a shock. She’s standing there crying and there’s nothing I could do.”
Jorja was kept on bail for four months and was not allowed to attend school during that time, which caused her to fall behind.
No further action was taken against Jorja by the Metropolitan Police and she is now studying for her A-Levels at a different school.
We asked her former school for more details but they declined to comment. It is unclear whether or not the school had an SSO in place.
Former social worker Imani Mclean, from Birmingham, works as a community advocate for families. She says some schools lean too much on the police unnecessarily.
“Many of the young people that I deal with already have a fear of the police because they feel that they are discriminated against and don’t believe the police are fair,” she says.
“There needs to be dialogue in terms of when you use the police and how they come into schools.”
The Runnymede Trust is calling for the removal of all SSOs and for the government to invest more funding in school wellbeing services.
The government says the deployment of officers in schools is an operational decision for police forces and a matter for individual schools.
The Department of Education also says a new investment of a further £10m in 2022/23 will help up to 8,000 schools and colleges promote and support the mental health and wellbeing of all pupils.