Ten years ago, I was in my class teaching a lesson on protest music during the Vietnam war when I heard a disturbance downstairs. I stepped out of my classroom with two students behind me to look downstairs to see what was causing the commotion. I saw a student running up the stairs at high speed with a panicked look. Right behind him was a police officer, gun drawn in hand. I immediately pushed my students back into the classroom and dove in behind them. After the adrenaline from what had just happened calmed down, I had several questions. Why was the police officer chasing a student through a high school? Why was he screaming freeze as if he was in a Hollywood movie? Why did he have his gun drawn? What would have happened if that officer had tripped running up the steps and accidentally fired his gun? He could have killed me or even worse, one of my students.
In my 20 years in education, I have seen situations like this play out numerous times in various schools. I have seen students assaulted by cops. I have also seen them pepper sprayed and arrested for trivial things such as profanity towards police officers or school administrators. I have seen police violate student rights over and over again. As a teacher, Cops have attempted to pressure me to write lies or exaggerated witness statements. They have tried to intimidate me into pressing charges for things that I did not feel warranted legal intervention. Police officers in schools only increase the chances that students will end up in the juvenile justice system and it’s time for them to go.
Police in schools have the titles of SRO’s or School Resource Officers. The only difference between a normal beat cop and a school resource officer is that SRO’s have to attend a mandatory 40-hour class. Most districts don’t require this class in their Memorandum of Understanding between the school system and local police. Forty hours of training doesn’t equip police with the skills required to handle teens and adolescents. Most teacher prep programs require at least 1 year of courses to study human growth and brain development. This enables teachers to have better understanding of student behavior and actions when interacting with children. SRO’s do not have this ability which leads to more punitive reactions toward normal adolescent behavior. SRO’s also disproportionately target students with disabilities for punishment due to this lack of understanding on how the brain works.
Schools, in general, are not safe and protected spaces for black children. They are discriminated against, abused, and suspended at three times the rates as their white classmates. Adding police racism to racist policies enforced by school codes of conduct only ensures that black students will be targeted and criminally charged for minor school transgressions. The police also endanger students’ physical bodies due to use of force and brutality by the police that disproportionately happens to black people. We have seen numerous videos of SRO’s abusing and physically assaulting students on social media. One local SRO was outed by the community as a white supremacist. True learning can’t take place when the academic culture and atmosphere is maintained through force and intimidation by police officers in schools.
Supporters of police officers in school say that SRO’s make schools safe by providing mentorship to the students. They say relationships students build with SRO’s with are important for community policing which a best practice according United States Department of Justice. While this may be true in a few communities, it is not true for the overwhelming majority of neighborhoods, specifically majority black neighborhoods. Additionally, it is impossible for a true mentorship of friendship to take place between SRO’s and students because of the unbalanced power dynamic in the relationship. I’ve had plenty of friends and relationships in my life, but none of them have had to power to arrest or charge me with a crime.
Other supporters of police officers say they make the schools safer. They cite events such as active shooters in schools as justification for officers. The evidence behind this theory does not hold weight. One of the worst school shootings in American history took place at Majorey Stoneman High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018. There was an SRO in the building when it occurred, but he did not prevent 17 students from being killed and 17 others from being injured by the gunman. This directly contradicts the theory that police officers make schools safe from active shooters. The most effective policy to eliminate school shootings is common sense gun control and more mental health support for students.
Martin Luther King said, “violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love.” School Resource Officers are only equipped with tools of violence to stop violence in schools. We need to equip schools with resources and tools that proactively address situations before violence occurs. We need to have conflict resolution, restorative justice, and other tools of peace in place to help our kids and schools become safe places for children.
The argument for defunding the police is an opportunity to promote and fund policies that educators and social scientists know are more effective than having police officers in schools. Imagine if the money spent on policing children with SRO’s went towards ensuring that each school had a licensed restorative justice practitioner. A person who could lead restorative justice sessions with students and develop these skills in teachers and other staff members to use in the school. Localities could use the money spent on police officers to equip school security staff with de-escalation techniques and relationship building skills in the school and community to alleviate issues and solve problems before conflict occurs. Money spent on police vehicles and surveillance of schools could go toward afterschool programming to keep kids in supervised positive activities, instead of being unsupervised in the streets.
Police presence in school is the number one influencer of the school to prison pipeline. When I survey most of my students about their first criminal charge, the vast majority of them say it occurred at school. We need to eliminate police from daily school activities. We can use the funds saved from defunding school resource officer programs to transform schools from a place of continued racial trauma at the hands of police, to a place of healing for the community. We need politicians and school leaders to step up to the plate and make the courageous decisions to remove SRO’s and protect all children.
2019 National Teacher Of The Year