Police Brutality in School: PSA for Educators, Therapists, and School Personel

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By Sarah Fowler

As I begin writing this blog, I would like to preface by saying that while I have carefully researched this topic, I cannot speak on behalf of people of color (POC) as a white woman. I can, however, use my privilege to spread awareness, understanding, and perspectives from POC to all those who read our blog.

I would also like to preface this with gratitude toward the police officers who are allies to marginalized communities and fight for POC rather than target them. We see you. We appreciate you. This blog is not about you.

School Resource Officers (SROs) Vary Vastly From School to School

When I was in 10th grade, our previous SRO was transferred to another school and a new officer was transferred to ours. The difference between the two was like night and day. Initially, we had a female officer who stayed under the radar, simply standing at the entrance as students arrived and the exit when we left. She was kind, respectful, and seemed to understand how to interact with us, students. When our new officer arrived, we were all piled into an assembly. The officer stood on the auditorium stage in his police uniform with a gun on his hip.

His opening remark went something like, “I am not looking for the sheep at this school. I am determined to find the wolves that wish to eat the sheep. I will not allow wolves to run these hallways.” He didn’t introduce himself, almost like he was dehumanizing himself so that we didn’t see him as an ally, but rather a threat that could take us down any second. That year, this officer started a “school rule” in which students were punished if they were caught cursing in the hallway between classes. He threatened us with suspension regardless of it was the first offense. Did cursing threaten the safety of our school? No. So what was the point? To instill fear? To demonstrate his power over us? Probably a combination of both.

My high school demographics were ~50% white, and ~50% Black/Latinx. Without failure, it was much more common to see a black or brown student being reprimanded by the new officer than white students. Our school, while boasting its diversity, was extremely segregated. We had a specialty program students could apply to that would look good on a college resume. It’s sadly no surprise that there were only 4 black students in our cohort of 60 students. Honors students were a mix of white and POC students, whereas regular education was primarily students of color. It’s important to note that the students in specialty programs were rarely in classes with other students. As a student belonging to the specialty program, it felt like two separate worlds. In the hallways, I saw students of color being reprimanded by our new officer for dress code violations (e.g., student’s pants being zip-tied through their belt loops to prevent “sagging,” being disrespectful, bullying other students, cursing in the hallway, not following orders, etc.). In the specialty program classrooms, I saw primarily white students who were able to get away with many of the “violations” that wouldn’t slide in the hallways with our new police officer or as a student of color in classrooms (e.g., cursing at a teacher, disrupting class, dress code violations, talking in class, phone use, yelling at a classmate, etc.). I share my experience to depict how vastly different student experiences with SROs are based on their level of performance academically, the color of their skin, and their socioeconomic status (SES). I encourage you to look back on your educational history. Did your school have a police presence? Did you often see racism and discrimination by authority figures?

Cops at the schoolyard gate” by Kristin Henning

Our interest in discussing police brutality in schools was sparked by an article titled, “Cops at the schoolyard gate” by Kristin Henning. We highly recommend reading this article in full if you are a parent, teacher, therapist, or other school personnel. However, we will detail the key highlights for you below.

Kristin Henning wrote the article to answer the question, “How the number of police officers in schools skyrocketed in recent decades and made for a harrowing education for Black and brown youth”

A Brief History Lesson

When you think of why there might have been an increase in police presence at schools, what rationale would you give? Did you think of recent mass shootings? I did too at first, particularly Columbine. While Columbine played a role in the expansion of school resource officers (SROs) in the early 21st century, SROs had already formed 8 years prior. The concept of SROs however, began all the way back in 1939 when Indianapolis Public Schools hired a “special investigator.” This special investigator formed a group of police officers who patrolled school property. The group was reorganized in 1970 to form the Indiana School Police. Throughout this time, it’s important to note that the Ku Klux Klan had control over the state legislature and the Indianapolis Board of School Commissioners. [1]

Across the country, other school districts started hiring police around 1950. In 1953, Flint made an argument for police presence in schools during a workshop. Concerns about growing student enrollment and negative effects of overcrowding such as delinquencies were expressed. Flint educations collaborated in 1958 to implement the nation’s first police-school liaison to address these concerns. Other states followed behind, sending police into schools under the pretense of protecting black youth when in actuality, it had more to do with white fear, privilege, and resentment. In 1957, impoverished Black and Latinx children were described by the New York City Police Department as “dangerous delinquents,” and “undesirables” capable of “corroding school morale.” This created a fear in white middle-class Americans of a growing youth crime problem. Cities began implementing school-police partnerships to combat this “problem” with black and brown children as scapegoats. [1]

Federal support for police presence in schools began with President Lyndon B. Johnson who established the Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice to figure out the cause of crime and delinquency. The report predicted that youth would be the greatest threat to public safety in the near future. This report specifically drew an association between race, crime, and poverty and often reminded their readers that “slum children of N*groes” were to blame. [1]

Black students, parents, and teachers spoke up about how Flint’s Police School Liaison Program was aimed specifically at the black community. Sadly their complaints held no traction in the middle-class white community. [1]

In 1995, John J. Dilulio Jr.’s predictions of upcoming “black teenage superpredators” led to legislation that was passed to increase police presence in every aspect of black adolescent life. In addition, legislation was passed (specifically The Violent Crime Control Act), which dramatically increased federal funding for policing in schools.[1]

As you can see, all of these actions led to an increase in police presence BEFORE Colombine even occurred. Months before Columbine, Congress had already voted to allocate funding for COPS in the School grants program. All Columbine ended up doing was increasing the federal funding for these programs. In summary, although school shootings explain an increase in funding for police in schools, they don’t explain the disproportionate surge of police in schools serving mostly black and Latinx students, even though most of the school-based shootings were in white suburban schools. [1]

But of course, it doesn’t stop there. New laws were passed to criminalize normal adolescent behavior. While the intention of the partners in Flint was to foster a positive relationship between youth and police, prevent youth crime, and provide counseling services for students at risk of delinquency, police officers received minimal training on how their traditional law enforcement roles should differ in schools and even less training about adolescent developmental psychology and brain development. [1]

A Quick Rant on Victim Blaming

Before I continue summarizing the key points of this article, I’d like to take a second to share my opinion. There is a HUGE need for training on the effects of PTSD, Autism, intellectual disabilities, and other mental health conditions in the police force.

Let’s take PTSD for example. If Black students have had negative encounters with police officers, whether the police are targeting them, their friends, or their parents, that is by definition, trauma. As you may or may not know, any traumatic event can cause PTSD based on how the trauma affects the individual mentally, emotionally, and physically. PTSD is not just for war veterans and isn’t just having a flashback here or there. When a student how has been traumatized by police officers goes to school and an SRO yells at them to take off their shoes for the metal detector, their nervous system automatically switches into “sympathetic mode” (also know as fight-flight or freeze). Adrenaline begins pumping, rage ensuing, and flashbacks are triggered. When a person with PTSD is triggered by situations similar to their trauma (e.g., getting yelled at for not following orders and consequently being handcuffed and or beaten), we have to have the empathy to understand it’s not delinquency, it’s a mental illness that the initial police officer is responsible for. So, when you or a friend attempts to say, “Well if they would just follow the orders they would have been fine,” I encourage you to think again. That individual is reacting based on a biological change in their nervous system due to trauma. Police officers need better training and understanding of how their actions affect the psyche of individuals, possibly for life. There needs to be some way to encourage Police officers to think outside the box and stop killing people who are just traumatized and subsequently lack control of their actions. Similarly, Police lack adequate training for individuals whose social skills may not present as “typical” due to autism, intellectual disabilities, or other mental health concerns.

Let’s Look at Some Stats

  • A study in 2013 found that police academies spend <1% of total training hours on juvenile justice.
  • In 2018, approximately 25% of school police indicated they had absolutely no experience working with youth before working in schools.
  • 63% reported they had never been trained on the teen brain.
  • 61% had never been trained on child trauma.
  • 46% had never been trained to work with special education students.

What is the Point of Police Presence in Schools? What Are Police Supposed To Do?

“Thirty years later and police officers still haven’t figured out what schools want them to do, and schools still don’t know what they want police to do.”

Kristin Henning

Even when SROs are hired specifically to respond to emergencies and protect students from guns and threats of violence, like any other school employee, they are quickly drawn into more routine activities on campus. In 2018, 7% of police officers described their duties as “enforcing school discipline,” yet, educators depend on the police to handle minor misbehavior (e.g., disobedience, disrespectful attitudes, disrupting the classroom, and other adolescent behaviors that have little to no impact on school safety). [1]

Crazy enough, Maryland adopted a “disturbing schools” law back in 1967, shortly after the civil rights movement. During the 2017-2018 school year, 3,167 students were arrested, 14% of which were for “disruption.” Since when did disrupting class become a crime?? Only when it’s POC? Because, I don’t know about you, but I sure enjoyed disrupting class when I was in school and was not once sent to our SRO. Until May 2018, loitering was an “arrestable” crime in North Carolina, with a $1000 fine and a possible 90-day sentence in jail. [1]

In the 2015-2016 academic year, within the 1,324 students that were arrested for disturbing schools, Black students were four times more likely than white youth to be deemed a disturbance. Thank goodness, the crime was eliminated in 2018, but the history holds important information on how police presence continues to target students of color. [1]

But Schools With a Police Presence Are Safer, Right?

Wrong. While we would like to claim that police presence in schools increases the safety of students in faculty, there has yet to be a study that proves it. In fact, in North Carolina, middle schools that used state grants to hire and train SROs did not report reductions in serious incidents like assaults, homicides, bomb threats, possession, and use of alcohol and drugs, or the possession of weapons. [1]

People who claim the school shootings are why a police presence is necessary for schools might be forgetting the widespread criticism for their failure to intervene in both Columbine and Parkland. The officer at Columbine followed protocol which detailed he must wait for the SWAT team before intervening thus increasing the death toll. At Parkland, students and faculty claimed to have seen their SRO standing outside in a bulletproof vest while coaches and security guards ran in to protect students despite a mandate that instructed deputies to interrupt the shooting and search for victims after a ceasefire. [1]

Police don’t make students feel safer, especially students of color in heavily policed communities. As mentioned above in my anecdote, police tend to increase psychological trauma. They also create a hostile learning environment and expose students of color to physical violence. Students of color don’t feel welcome or trusted at school and are much less likely than white students to report that school police and security have treated them with respect. It makes them feel anxious and alienated. The key lies here: “Over time, student transfer their distrust, resentment, and hostility toward the police to school authorities. Teachers become interchangeable with the police, principals become wardens, and students no longer see school staff as educators, advocates, and protectors.” Students who feel devalued are more likely to withdraw and become delinquent. So in this scenario, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Inappropriate police intervention traumatized children into delinquency. If a student doesn’t feel safe or welcome, they are more likely to drop out. There is absolutely no question that this is just another facet of systemic racism which systematically engages in victim-blaming; pointing their fingers to students as scapegoats rather than owning their mistakes and acknowledging the flaws in their politicized organization. [1]

Students Don’t Just Feel Less Safe, They Are Less Safe.

Organizations like the Alliance for Educational Justice collect data on police assaults at schools. [1]

“The organization has recorded numerous stories from students of color, as young as 12, who have been hit on the head, choked, punched repeatedly, slammed to the group, kneed in the back, dragged down the hall, pepper-sprayed while handcuffed, shocked with a stun gun, tased, struck by metal nightstick, beaten with a baton, and even killed by police at school.”

Kristin Henning

Police Violence Often Occurs in Response to Nonviolent Student Behaviors Such as the Following [1]:

  • Wearing a hat indoors
  • Not tucking in shirts
  • Being late to class
  • Going to the bathroom without permission
  • Participating in school demonstrations
  • Fighting in school
  • Having marijuana
  • Being emotionally distraught
  • Cursing at school officials
  • Refusing to give up a cellphone
  • Arguing with a parent on campus
  • Throwing an orange at a wall
  • Peace disturbance
  • Failure to comply with instructions

What now?

Given the increased safety risk and minimal benefits of having a police presence in schools, current policing strategies can no longer be justified as necessary for school safety. [1]

“Columbine can’t explain police involvement in routine school discipline, discriminatory enforcement of school rules, or massive spending on the police infrastructure in American schools. And it certainly can’t explain the violent force that is used to control children of color. It is about time we admit that our infatuation with policing Black children in schools was never about Columbine.”

Kristin Henning

References:

  1. Cops at the schoolyard gate

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