The California state capitol in Sacramento. (Flickr/Rafał Próchniak)
This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence and is reposted with permission.
After the Newtown shootings, the urgency to secure schools shot up. California Senator Barbara Boxer floated legislation to deploy the National Guard in districts nationwide; President Obama included grants for “school resource officers” in his since-mothballed gun control proposals; and districts, including Los Angeles, which already has the largest school police force in the country, called for more police or stronger partnerships with local law enforcement.
Across the country, students of color braced for the aftershock. School police are the bedrock of the school-to-prison pipeline, a system that levies harsh punishments for nonviolent behavior and, despite scant evidence of greater infraction, funnels disproportionate numbers of black and Latino students out of school and into court. This system of racialized discipline and punishment feeds off moments of fear like Newtown—from the Reagan-era war on drugs, when zero tolerance discipline was born, to the Columbine shootings, which led schools in Denver to increase student referrals to law enforcement by 71 percent over the next four years.
The most recent police surge is, however, only one part of the story. The commotion over school safety has also opened space for youth organizers to push the conversation in the opposite direction.
On May 29, the California state assembly passed AB 549 by a vote of 71-0. The bill is a sweeping attempt to clarify the role of school police, limit their involvement in student discipline and prioritize the use of restorative justice training, school counselors and related support in school violence prevention. In its current wording, it encourages schools to articulate the role of all school staff—from police officers to mental health workers—in state-mandated school safety plans. As it moves to the state Senate, activists are pushing to make that encouragement a requirement, while also requiring schools to emphasize practices like counseling and conflict resolution training. They also seek an explicit definition of school police as overseers of physical safety rather than student discipline.