A recent survey by the Center for Popular Democracy found that more than two-thirds of public school students thought that police should be removed from schools. One in five students reported being verbally harassed or made fun of by police in school, and two of every five young people surveyed felt unsafe just seeing them. The findings were released in a report titled “Arrested Learning: A Survey of Youth Experiences of Police and Security at School.” The report details how students often feel targeted by police in schools, including through regular, negative interactions as well as sexual harassment. The students surveyed overwhelmingly favor receiving additional resources and support, like mental health treatment, more teachers, and dedicated youth programs, rather than greater funding for police and security. Because of over-policing, many students—often low-income and students of color—are funneled out of public schools and into the criminal justice system.
The Center for Popular Democracy’s Senior Policy and Campaign Strategist Kate Terenzi said the school-to-prison-and-deportation pipeline was one of the most “egregious examples of systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence in the country.… Students deserve more than an education system that is hell-bent on criminalizing them instead of providing them with the resources they need to succeed.” Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, when they act out in school, they are isolated, reprimanded, and sometimes criminally charged. As of 2013, 51 percent of high schools with majority Black and Latino enrollment had law enforcement officers on campus, compared to only 32 percent of majority white schools. Across the country, Black students are more than twice as likely as their white classmates to be referred to law enforcement or arrested at school. Studies have also shown that those involved with the criminal justice system as adolescents are more likely to go to prison as an adult. Roughly 40 percent of kids who go into juvenile detention end up in prison by the age of 25.
Stationing police in schools is a relatively new practice. In the 1960s, members of the Johnson administration saw the rising crime and poverty rates as a lack of “law and order.” In response, LBJ implemented programs to promote equitable access to housing, employment, and schooling after declaring a “War on Poverty” in 1964. However, public officials at all levels of government simultaneously pursued their own programs of economic and social control.
By the late 1960s, the federal government initiated “youth crime prevention” programs in many of the nation’s largest cities. In Kansas City, Mo., a program allowed teachers and school administrators to label students as young as 9 as “pre-delinquent,” subjecting them to increased surveillance and more frequent interrogation by police. These classifications justified the expansion of police presence for the expressed purpose of preventing future crime, and the concept of delinquency became increasingly racialized.
By the 1980s, seeing police in urban schools had become normalized. During this time, Sociologist Christian Parenti stated that students living in poverty had “an unofficial, unacknowledged curriculum on how to be searched, scanned, ID’d, detained, interrogated, and expelled.” Linking criminal justice goals to the education system expanded the reach of law enforcement into the lives of students, and thus began to shape education policy. Schools’ adoption of a “zero tolerance” policy created a system of mandatory suspensions and expulsions, often for behavior as trivial as chewing gum. States expanded the definition of a “weapon” to include seemingly innocuous objects like nail clippers. By 2001, 90 percent of school systems had implemented some form of zero-tolerance or three-strikes discipline policy. The federal government’s enthusiasm for school policing made it appear acceptable and even preferable to have law enforcement patrolling school hallways, illustrated by the use of the term “school resource officer.”
A school resource officer is the official title for any police officer regularly working within a school, but the role of these officers can differ from state to state and from school to school. At the national level, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, describes the job as a combination of law enforcement, counseling, teaching, and emergency management. However, the same office also tells school police to prioritize law enforcement above all else.
If our schools need additional counselors and mentors, turning to police is far from the most suitable choice. Unlike a school psychologist or social worker, a police officer lacks specialized training. A school counselor’s first responsibility is to the students they counsel, and they are bound by ethical standards to keep student information confidential, absent certain extenuating circumstances. Police officers do not have the same obligation. Instead, police may share information with other law enforcement agencies or use information gathered against a student or a students’ family and friends. At best, their efforts are meant to foster positive views of police or teach children about crime, objectives which do not require regular assignment to schools. However, the effects of such efforts are not always benevolent.
In 2016, Milwaukee Public Schools implemented a pilot program for fourth and fifth graders called Students Talking It Over with Police, or STOP, with the goal of increasing positive perceptions of police among youth. A review caused the school district to abruptly cancel the program. Concerns included “a classroom skit in which an actual police officer pretends to pull out a gun and threatens to shoot if a student runs away, and then repeatedly yells: ‘Bang, bang, bang,’” along with a requirement to sign a pledge “never to run from the police, fight with police, or argue with the police.” According to a member of the review committee, the program “teaches students the police are correct and that the problem is really the youth.” This manifests itself in the frequent criminalization of adolescent behavior by police.
When adolescent behaviors are criminalized, students of color find themselves at greater risk of involvement with the criminal justice system merely by virtue of attending school. These students are criminalized for behaviors that may annoy adults but are a typical part of adolescent development, with serious-sounding criminal laws often applied to not-so-serious behavior. For example, in South Carolina, the misdemeanor crime of “disturbing schools” is consistently among the leading charges made against young people, sending thousands of children into the criminal justice system for offenses as vague as acting “obnoxiously.” In 2015, this law was used to criminally charge a student who had taken out her phone in class, as well as her classmate Niya Kenny, who criticized the actions of a police officer when he violently ripped the young girl from her desk.
Over the past decade, students have been criminally charged for spraying perfume, fake burping, refusing to change a T-shirt depicting a hunting rifle, and criticizing a police officer. Students have been charged with “assault” for throwing a baby carrot at a student and launching a paper airplane. A 5-year old student with ADHD was charged with “battery on a police officer” for having a tantrum.
Students of color in urban areas are punished—and sometimes even incarcerated—for the same behaviors that white students in suburban schools exhibit all the time. According to a study conducted by Russell Skiba and Natasha Williams at the Equity Project in 2016, “there is simply no good evidence that racial differences in discipline are due to differences in rates or types of misbehavior by students of different races.”
Following the extrajudicial murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, June 22, 2020, marked the beginning of a weeklong, nationwide call by student groups across the country to support young people and their allies in the fight for police-free schools. During this week, communities across the country, mostly led by youth of color, called on their school boards, mayors, and other elected officials to cut ties with local police departments and remove police from schools. Organizers and allies made similar demands in Minneapolis, Seattle, Denver, Milwaukee, Portland, and Rochester over the course of the two weeks prior.
“Black youth are organizing and demanding police-free schools because they know that the police killing Black people in the streets are the same police assaulting and arresting them in their schools,” says Alliance for Educational Justice National Director Jonathan Stith. “This is a national crisis. Until a few weeks ago, there wasn’t a school in America that a Black child could attend where there wasn’t the threat of police violence.”
All students deserve to feel safe and welcome whenever they attend school, and no one should be worried that firing a spitball will lead to a court sentence. Education can be “the great equalizer,” but not until we remove police from schools.