Policing in Schools
By Edward Leeford
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In the wake of the murder of 17 students and faculty at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the now-routine conversation about barbaric incidents of mass violence in America’s schools whirled around its usual causes and solutions. Underlying all discussion, a refrain is one of safety and security in the learning environments of our children.
Unfortunately, this call for safety has been hijacked by those interested in expanding the existing school-to-prison pipeline. This pipeline couples punitive zero tolerance policies that remove students from schools via suspension or expulsion (also known as exclusionary discipline) with an increased presence of student resource officers (SROs). These policies create an environment where students have more frequent encounters with police, which can lead to arrest and incarceration, funneling students into a system designed to strip them of their rights, their labor, and their freedom.
This wasn’t a project started by the conservative wing of American politics; it happened under Bill Clinton’s liberal Democratic party in tandem with sweeping crime “reforms” that sought to accelerate mass incarceration and cultivate a “tough on crime” image for the party. Since the 90s, this mechanism has grown to swallow countless children striving for an education, disrupting their learning communities in the process. After the Columbine massacre of 1999, crisis-motivated calls for safety and security caused the expansion of policing and punishment in schools. Schools were built like fortresses, meant to repel invaders, but also contain and corral students. Safety glass and high-tech locks became the norm. Classrooms were laid out to accommodate lockdown procedures. Some schools installed year-round metal detection at entrances. The buildings no longer looked like institutions of learning. In the short term, these conditions have created unwelcome learning environments for students, particularly for students of color. In her book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, Monique W. Alexander cites the experiences of black girls in schools, explaining “the chaotic learning environment has, in some cases, led to their avoidance of school or to reduced engagement in school.”
It’s hard to say if these changes have made schools safer against mass violence by individuals, but they have allowed the state to criminalize the behavior of students who do not fit into the mold of a “model” student. Zero tolerance policies enable teachers and administrators to suspend or expel students for disruptive behavior as long as the acts are related to existing bans on bullying, weapons, violence, or drug use. In some cases, students are swept up in blanket suspensions for possessing items like nail clippers, defending themselves in a schoolyard fight, or carrying illicit “medicine” like cough drops.
Exclusionary discipline stemming from zero tolerance policies fall disproportionately on students of color, with black students receiving 49% of all out of school suspensions, despite being only 15% of the total school population in the 2015-2016 school year (for comparison, white students received 32% of out of school suspensions while accounting for 49% of enrolled students). These policies are bleeding into pre-elementary education, with black students in public preschool programs accounting for 48% of all out-of-preschool suspensions. This discrimination stems from an irrational, racist belief in black students being somehow more dangerous or more threatening than their white peers. The result is a discipline system organized to punish black children as supposed threats to the learning environment, even if they are four-year-olds. Additionally, students with disabilities are targeted by zero tolerance policies, with 26% of all suspensions given to students with disabilities, despite being only 12% of enrolled students. On top of all this, exclusionary discipline is incredibly disruptive to students’ learning environments, since you can’t expect to learn if you are barred from attending school. But zero tolerance policies become more pernicious once the justice system and police forces become involved.
The proliferation of SROs has led to the criminalization of disruptive behavior. Normally, when students are facing down punishment in schools, it would come from administrators and teachers who are trained on the developmental health of children. But increasingly, when behavioral problems arise, particularly those borne out of frustration or anger, the SRO may remove students from classrooms forcibly. These interactions with uniformed police officers are infinitely more disruptive than the behavior that prompted the removal, especially in schools where the majority of students come from marginalized communities targeted by policing. SROs intervening in discipline gives police the authority to punish students through the juvenile judicial system, instead of processes headed up by educational professionals. This results in students as young as elementary schoolers being removed from school grounds to be booked at local police offices, in hopes of scaring them straight. Secondary age students are funneled into juvenile court systems, especially if they are repeat offenders who are classified as “beyond teaching” by the educators who are sworn to protect them. These punitive and destructive measures fall the hardest upon already marginalized communities; particularly students of color. In the 2015-2016 school year, black students accounted for 31% of all law enforcement referrals and school related arrests (despite being 15% of the total school population). Similarly, 28% of all law enforcement referrals and school related arrests were given to students with disabilities, even though they only occupy 12% of the total school population. These measures have successfully weaved policing into the fabric of schools. But current measures proposed by those advocating for safety and security in schools would make the knit that much closer.
In the 25 years since policing and punishment in schools was expanded, there is no evidence to support that schools have become safer against isolated acts of mass violence. But there is copious support that increased security measures are further deteriorating learning environments that are already feeling the squeeze from decreased public funding and attacks from charter school advocates. It should be no small wonder why public schools have a perception of being lawless, out-of-control institutions that need to brought to heel; because we are building them up as stepping stones to prisons for our youngest generations.
For prison abolitionists and those looking to dismantle America’s carceral state, the immediate goal should be pushing back against proposed expansions of policing in schools. For those in educational fields, this means debunking the supposed benefits of a close relationship with local police forces and engaging in classroom management practices that prevent students from coming in contact with SROs. For parents, this means speaking up at local school board meetings and parent-teacher associations about how you want learning environments free from the pressure of the judicial system. For students, this means building up your organizing muscle in support of your peers’ continued safety from state violence and repression. For activists outside of schools, this means educating students, parents, and educators about the dangers of increased policing in schools.
The link between schools and prisons is not a given, it was built within most of our lifetimes. The institutions of power have built it without our consent, but we have every right to dismantle it how we see fit.