CW: Police brutality, racist violence, violence against children. There are videos (they do not autoplay) of police assaulting students, and photos of police violence throughout history. Please do what you need to preserve your mental health today.
A year and a half ago, I watched the following footage from a South Carolina high school with horror.
The officer was called into the classroom because the student allegedly refused to put her cell phone away.
Then, just a few days after the new year, I watched this footage, filmed on a student’s cell phone:
That child’s offense? She was trying to break up a fight and protect her sister from harm.
Last month, I watched this video of a 10-year-old Autistic boy being arrested. This footage was filmed by his mother:
His offense? Having a severe tantrum, including flailing and kicking, and a paraeducator who didn’t know how to help him – six months earlier.
And just last week, journalist Shaun King shared this surveillance camera footage:
That child’s offense? You tell me. He’s just sitting in a chair. Apparently sitting quietly while black is now punishable by a choke hold, tasering, and a knocked-in tooth.
These videos show some of the most shocking examples of school police, also known as School Resource Officers (SROs), brutalizing children in school. But they are not the only examples of police officers harassing, arresting, or physically assaulting public school students as young as five years old. In 2013, an SRO threatened to take my 13-year-old student to juvenile detention for going to her locker after leaving my after-school program. In 2014, one of my students was arrested for “assaulting an officer during a fight,” but when I asked about the altercation, it turned out that her offense was yelling at an unfamiliar, plain-clothes cop after he tried to physically take her off the school bus (I mean… what would you do if a total stranger tried to drag you off a bus?).
So it’s beyond time for me to take a stand:
We need cops out of schools.
And so, my dear Liberators, this kicks off a new series on why we need cops out of schools. Each post in this series will discuss one reason why police do not belong in our schools. I realize this is a touchy subject among teachers, and I’m certainly not trying to pick fights. My goal is to help educators, parents, students, and advocates consider safety as something that can exist outside of policing, and take fuller responsibility for the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of our children. I hope you find this series informative and thought-provoking!
Welcome to Part 1: The Problem is not PR, it is Brutality.
I wanted to start this series in two ways: first, I needed to confront the brutality that has taken place in our public schools (hence the video footage). Second, I wanted to explore the history of SRO programs. After all, while police are not essential to keeping a school running — 57% of schools don’t have any SROs in the first place — someone clearly thought it was a good idea. I decided to find out why.
The first official School Resource Officer program was started in the late 1950s in Flint Michigan (which, by the way, has not had clean water for more than three years now). The stated goal of the program was to change children’s attitudes toward police. Then, as today, a significant number of school-age children – especially Black children – were afraid of and did not trust police. So the Flint PD decided to deploy a few officers into area schools to present a less-scary, kid-friendly version of police.
According to Michael Allison, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, that is still the goal of the SRO program today: “It breaks down these barriers where the law enforcement officers are seen as an enemy. In the majority of cases around the country, that’s what school resource officers are doing every day.”
I honestly did not expect that to be the reason. I had fully expected to read that SRO programs were a response to school shootings or other violence. I totally assumed that a police presence was about public safety. But I guess I’m pretty naive for a cynic, because SRO programs have nothing to do with safety. They’re about public relations.
So, before we go any further, let’s think…. Why might children, especially black children, be afraid of police?
At the end of the day, police are not hired and trained to play nice with kids – their job is to arrest people and put them in jail.
Children who are afraid of the police are frightened because they know what police do.
They have seen their parents hauled off in handcuffs. They have visited their family member in prison – and been searched and harassed by a uniformed officer during the process. They have watched the murders of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and Walter Scott over and over again – and learned over and over again that when police kill, they go free. They have witnessed the murders of their brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers.
There is a significant body of psychological research showing that children, particularly children of color, are growing up traumatized by the amount of racist violence and police brutality they witness every day. Symptoms of trauma include depression, anxiety, irritability, increased sensitivity, and poor concentration. What this means is that for a lot of students, the presence of police in schools triggers uncontrollable feelings of fear and defensiveness. Students cannot learn or behave adaptively while they experience these physical and emotional symptoms. And so, for a lot of our students, an SRO program is interrupting their education and harming their development.
A police department’s desire to look good should never take priority over the emotional and mental well-being of our students.
Images of cops playing basketball with kids, buying a pair of sneakers for that one teen with a heart of gold, or joking around in the halls are a great PR move, but they don’t cure trauma. They don’t undo the acts of brutality committed by police every day. And I do mean every day – here in my city of just 174,000 people, an officer physically assaults someone every single day (data from CPD, via Freedom of Information Act request). How can we possibly expect children to enjoy a police presence when police violence is a daily occurrence in their neighborhood?
If police departments want children to grow up unafraid of the officers, a better place to start would be to, well… stop killing people.
“Well, hey now,” you might say (and by “you,” I mean an imaginary person I made up for the sake of rhetoric), “Most kids aren’t traumatized, and lots of them like having a cop around! And plus, they DO make our schools safer!”
Well, to that I say:
1.) Just because most kids aren’t not suffering trauma does not mean we should ignore the needs of those who ARE. Just because “most kids” don’t have peanut butter allergies doesn’t mean we should force every kid to eat a spoonful of the stuff.
2.) Lots of kids like having ice cream for dinner and watching 5 hours of SpongeBob SquarePants, too, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them.
3.) Actually, there is no empirical evidence to support that claim – and THAT will be the next installment of Cops out of Schools.
Teachers, parents, and students: Does your school hire police? How do you feel about their presence? How do you think your school’s culture would change if police were removed? What would you like to see discussed in this series? Let’s talk (respectfully) in the comments!