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Season 2

August 2023 - Episode 2

Schooled by Fear: The Controversial Role of Police in Educational Spaces

Many Black students live in over-policed, under-funded communities. School should be a safe space for them, a refuge from surveillance and a place to explore. But almost 70% of public high schools and middle schools have police officers on site, and Black students have contact with police more often than White students. When there’s police inside the school, and police outside the school, law enforcement is a constant presence in these students’ lives.

Today, we’re talking to Corey Mitchell, a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity who co-wrote the article “When schools call police on kids.” We’ll hear from Dr. DeMarcus Jenkins, an assistant professor in the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania. Finally, we’ll speak with Amir Whitaker, senior policy counsel with the ACLU of Southern California.

Please also consider this list of resources on the topic, compiled by Subini Ancy Annamma, Ph.D: “Education and Criminalization: Do Black Lives Matter in Schools.”

Charles T. Brown:

When Amir Whitaker was in the seventh grade, he and his friends were taken by a police officer into a small room at the school.

Amir Whitaker:

Something happened where a student’s book bag was stolen and maybe some money was in it or something like that. This officer took me and my friends in the room and basically interrogated us one by one, and the officer sat across from the table from me, looked me in the eye, closed the doors, kind of like one of those movies, good cop, bad cop, and he just put the handcuffs in the middle of the table and didn’t say anything else and looked at me and essentially threatened violence in jail and incarceration for something that I didn’t even know what was going on at that point. And I think to do that to someone who wasn’t even a teenager, to have an adult do that to them is abuse. In other settings, we view that as abuse, but police have special powers where they can abuse children and other citizens.

Charles T. Brown:

This was 20 years ago, but with more mass shootings than ever. We’ve reached a point at which almost 70% of public high schools and middle schools have police officers on site. Everyone agrees that schools should be a safe place for children, but the definition of safety is in question when there’s no shortage of police officers that have bullied, intimidated and attacked students, particularly Black students. My name is Charles T. Brown, and this is Arrested Mobility. Thanks for joining us.

After the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, millions of federal dollars became available to deploy police in schools. But school policing didn’t start with Columbine. It actually began with Brown versus Board of Education. Cops were originally placed in schools to prevent violence from White people, angry about segregation. According to research from the Urban Institute and the Center for Public Integrity, Black students have had contact with police more often than White students, and majority Black and Latino school districts have the largest police presence. Corey Mitchell is an education reporter with the Center for Public Integrity. In 2021, he co-wrote an investigative piece titled, When Schools Call Police on Kids.

Corey Mitchell:

Our 2021 investigation found that nationwide Black students and students with disabilities are referred to law enforcement at nearly twice their share of the overall student population. And in 31 states in Washington DC, Black students were referred to law enforcement at more than twice the rate of White students. I mean, that seems to indicate clear evidence of racial bias in school policing. It’s not like, oh, here’s this anecdotal evidence. We took a look at federal data, so that means like every public school across the country, and we really dug deep. It is not just in the places that you would typically think, oh, okay, there are large shares of Black students in this district or this state. Some states with significantly smaller populations of Black students, you would think that these disparities wouldn’t sort of pop up, but they do. I mean, we see them in many places across the northeast where Black students make up less than 3% of the student population. And we’re talking not only high schools, we’re talking high school, middle school, elementary school. I mean, it’s everywhere.

There was a case here in Montgomery County, Maryland with a five-year-old boy who ran away from school. He didn’t make it very far, and the entire time there was a staff member from the school trailing him. Two officers found him a short distance away from the school, and that’s when the trouble started. They berated the child, they threatened a child. One officer put him in the back of a cruiser to drive him back to school, rather than allowing the staff member to walk the child back. The other officer told the boy that he deserved to be beaten and was a shepherd for the devil.

Among other things, much as this happened in the presence of school staff, sometimes one person, sometimes several people, and what these people did, just without even thinking about as they deferred to law enforcement. There was never a situation when someone stepped in to say, Hey, this is a child, perhaps we should talk to them differently. Police are trained to be police. They have tools that they use, citations, arrests, coercion. Those things aren’t always the best tools to solve problems in a school setting.

Charles T. Brown:

Teachers and school staff frequently bring in school resource officers, also known as SROs to discipline students. These are sworn police who are embedded within the school. They spend most of their shifts patrolling hallways and guarding entrances. Kids get used to being watched as they move through school. They often pass through metal detectors as they entered the building and are surveilled on camera.

Dr. DeMarcus Jenkins is an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His research focuses on public discourse at school board meetings about the value of law enforcement in schools. Dr. Jenkins is also a former high school teacher and has seen the impact of law enforcement up close. He argues that the constant atmosphere of surveillance is actively harmful and distracting for students.

DeMarcus Jenkins:

My name is DeMarcus Jenkins. I am an assistant professor in the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I have had the chance to speak with students and parents inside of schools, teachers and administrators, school board members and community members, all about their perspectives on school safety and law enforcement in schools and policies and practices that can help to ensure young people and adults who are connected to schools can feel safe. There are many people who are committed to this idea that the only way to ensure youth safety in schools is through police. I think that that is the wrong way to think about how we can keep school safe and keep students in these schools safe.

Youth don’t want to be surveilled, right? They don’t want to be policed while they are in their schools and their learning environments. They don’t want to be feeling as if someone’s always watching them and that they can’t be trusted, and that if they do the wrong thing or if they don’t do what their teachers say, that they might be susceptible to violence and harm against their bodies. When police are called to handle minor infractions in schools, especially in schools that serve low-income communities filled with Black and Brown students, it is most often that the students are harmed. And not just the student who is the call because of the infraction, but also the school community. The students in that class who had to bear witness to their peer being attacked in this particular way or being assaulted in this particular way, I think it disrupts the entire learning environment.

Interactions with police don’t just impact the person who’s directly in contact with the police. It disrupts the entire community, and it also awakens something inside of us that reminds us of our prior victimization. Black students, students with disabilities may never talk to the SRO. That does not mean that they are not impacted by watching one of their peers be brutalized by an SRO. That does not, that when they go to recess and they see law enforcement on the playground that their body doesn’t tense up because the idea that I could be next, the idea that if I do something wrong, this could end really, really badly still resound. It’s still present.

So imagine now being told to focus. Focus on your math homework, focus on reading the text, focus on your learning when I am still thinking about the fact that a police officer just checked my bag when I walked in the building, and that also might remind me of the police officer that arrested my older brother or the police officer that stopped my mom or the police officer that did this other thing, right? But I’m supposed to drop all that at the door, come into this class and be okay.

Charles T. Brown:

Many Black students live in overpoliced, underfunded communities. Schools should be a safe place for them, a refuge from surveillance in a place to explore. But when there is police inside the school and police outside the school, law enforcement becomes a constant presence in their lives. This is a real issue for these kids, emotional wellbeing and their overall development. We should be talking more about how police affect our kids on a psychological level, but at a community level, the conversation is usually about preventing mass shootings.

We’ve all felt the pain from those communities that have lost children in teachers to gun violence, Uvalde, Parkland, Sandy Hook, Columbine, and countless more. So even though there’s little to no evidence that SROs prevent gun violence, many communities still support the presence of law enforcement in schools. Parents are scared for their children’s lives and they don’t see any alternative answers. Here’s Corey Mitchell again, from the Center for Public Integrity.

Corey Mitchell:

Different communities have different values. Having law enforcement presence in school is reassuring in some communities. There have been a thousand plus school shootings in the past decade, and that may be even represent a significant under count. Other places have actively worked to keep police out of schools.

I know that in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, there were dozens and perhaps more districts that canceled contracts or agreements with police. But as students began to return to school post pandemic, there were shootings on or near campus or other incidents in some of these districts, and they began to bring officers back. When it comes to school safety, gun control is often the elephant in the room, but it’s convenient to ignore that part of the conversation because it can be difficult and controversial. Adding more officers and security measures is a default move. But there are other options.

I think even after some of the nation’s deadliest school shootings, when you’re talking about Uvalde and Parkland, there were efforts to pass gun control measures such as universal background checks, assault rifle bans, but those fell flat. We’ve seen in those two instances with those two massacres or mass shootings, if you will, the presence of law enforcement doesn’t always prevent these incidents.

Typically, school resource officer programs are funded through federal grant programs from the US Department of Justice. Back in the late 1990s to early 2000s, there was the COPS in School program with COPS being an acronym for Community-Oriented Policing Services in Schools. That program made hundreds of millions of dollars available to law enforcement agencies, paving the way for thousands more officers to be stationed at schools.

And more recently, in 2018, 2019, Congress passed the Stop School Violence Act, which makes hundreds of millions more dollars available for school policing and surveillance. So what’s consistent across all these funding sources is that the money is available. You don’t have to illustrate that you have a problem, you just have to sort of outline some cooperation between law enforcement and the school district. And this became such a big deal that there were some states that decided to supplement the federal funding by introducing their own statewide school security grant programs. This happened in places like Virginia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Texas, and Florida. And the school districts and law enforcement agencies are public agencies. It’s hard to turn down money if it’s available, as perhaps even they perceive it to be unwise if money is available when you don’t apply for it.

I think that what research has shown us over the years is that there were consequences to this money becoming available to law enforcement agencies to place more officers in schools. There’s been some legislation that’s sort of been in a holding pattern on Capitol Hill for, I would say the better part of five years now, in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, the counseling, not Criminalization in Schools Act, which would divert millions of dollars in federal funding from school policing to use that money for more mental health professionals, namely the counselors, the social workers, the psychologists, and the trauma-informed responses to violence that some school districts are trying out. But that legislation has stalled in the Senate. And in theory, it sounds like something that there should be at least a debate on the floor in the House and Senate, but this sort of thing that’s still languishing in committee.

Charles T. Brown:

There is an incredible statistic cited by the stalled bill. 14 million children have been exposed to police in schools but have never had a counselor, social worker, nurse or school psychologist. This number comes from research conducted by Amir Whitaker, whose story we heard at the top of the episode. Amir was interrogated by police in middle school for a crime he knew nothing about. Today, he is a senior policy counsel at the ACLU of Southern California. Before joining the ACLU, Amir represented students in legal trouble and incarcerated use.

Amir Whitaker:

I’ve been fortunate enough to help to decriminalize the school environment and school discipline specifically in some settings, starting in Florida and then here in California a bit as well. But in Florida, for example, I have one student or client, a 16 year old girl who came to school one day with the head wrap as many traditional women wear in African societies, and the teacher asked the student to remove the head wrap. Although it was serving no distraction whatsoever, the teacher calling attention to the head wrap is actually what caused the distraction. And she didn’t feel like removing it, and the teacher couldn’t make her, and the teacher didn’t know what else to do. So she called the police.
I saw the video. It was obvious that he wasn’t trained on dealing with children and basically was putting his hands on her trying to grab it and remove it. You don’t do that to any woman. You don’t do that to a Black girl. And it turned into a tussle where this grown officer actually slammed a 16 year old girl. She had bruises. The presence of the officer created a situation where the educator thought it was appropriate. It’s like when you have a hammer in a toolbox, they might not even consider using a screwdriver.

Charles T. Brown:

It’s worth pointing out now that the criminalization of students does differ based on their multi-dimensional identities. The student whose head wrap was grabbed might not otherwise have been attacked if she was not expressing her cultural identity and her gender identity. Corey also noted earlier that Black students and students with disabilities are referred to law enforcement twice as often as other students. Students with disabilities often come into contact with law enforcement because they have difficulty expressing themselves in a way that is considered appropriate by society’s norms. These kids don’t need to be disciplined or punished. They need assistance adapting to an environment that hasn’t been built for them. If you’re interested in reading about the criminalization of Black students through an intersectional lens, we’re going to link to a list of resources in the show notes.

Now, let’s talk about some possible solutions. We asked Amir how to create a more equitable education system for all students.

Amir Whitaker:

When you disaggregate the data and you look at why police are being called, it’s often related to things connected to mental health or sometimes related to school discipline. And once you look at those reasons, you can see that police aren’t actually prepared or trained to respond to mental health or student discipline. So therefore, why are they being called? Why is there a permanent presence? And I think it’s decriminalizing the school environment because I think we still have a youth control complex where we feel our children need to be controlled from head to toe, not wearing hats, not doing this. Where’s your belt? Where’s things that don’t actually distract or disrupt? And that changes it from a public place where students feel welcome and encouraged to thrive to what they call the school to prison pipeline, where students are more likely to end up in prison just by virtue of the schools they attend, by the policies they have.

And I remember I myself, for years, thought I dropped out of school until I studied educational psychology. While doing my master’s in doctorate, I realized that I was actually pushed out of school like millions of children when the schools actually create climates and environments that make us no longer feel welcome. So the recommendation is creating inclusive, welcoming environments and looking at the reasons why we feel police need to be called. Here in Los Angeles, we’re fighting for the implementation of what’s called safe passages and different community safety agreements and initiatives. Insurance students have safe passages to and from school because sometimes these school shootings happen around the perimeter of the school, and then they just classify it as a school shooting.

And of course, restorative and transformative justice and different things like that that allow for issues to be heard and problems to be addressed. For example, there was one school shooting in Ohio that was the result of a student being suspended, and then he came back disgruntled and shot the school. So in that situation, had they done a restorative justice circle, heard the student, hear his frustration, brought the victim and the person harmed and actually facilitated some healing and conversation around it, that’s what actually would’ve resolved the situation. So we see that there’s clearly a leaky roof and there’s water all over the floor, and the emergency response is the buckets collecting the water and emptying the buckets here and there, and that’s just not going to solve it. We have to get on the roof. We have to patch up those holes, and we have to stop the water from coming in in the first place.

Charles T. Brown:

One of the most effective ways to address over-policing in schools is to empower kids directly and give them the tools to succeed. We want Black children and children of color, in fact, all children to feel cared for and connected in their schools. Organizations like the ACLU are working towards this goal on a small scale and making a difference in students’ lives. Amir describes some of his proudest moments working with some very determined the kids.

Amir Whitaker:

Two of our students were involved in essentially a food fight, and the police responded by pepper spraying them, and they actually had to go to jail because they were 18 at the time, and so they were seniors too. So they were almost seven months away from graduating and different things. And both of the students had special needs. Black and Brown boys with emotional and behavioral disorders are overrepresented with arrest. So after the situation, one of the students basically was still traumatized. He didn’t want to go back to school and reaching out to us and us advocating for him and us filing a complaint and doing things made him feel more confident and more that he had a voice and that he was standing up for his rights and a text message.

Six months later, I received from him just saying, “I made it, I graduated from school. They didn’t want me to make it, but thank you so much for making me feel like I could go back to school and for fighting for me.” So just knowing that he persevered despite the trauma that the school gave to him, and that we could help encourage him and help him to be brave and help him to fight. And then here in Los Angeles, our Youth Liberty Squad with the ACLU have helped to create some transformative change and have done amazing and remarkable things. For example, we have students from over 30 schools, and they’ve done petitions that have gotten thousands of signatures and pushed for all sorts of policies. They’ve gotten resolutions passed in their school board, they’ve changed their school. They’ve forced their school to create better policies. So I think because we can’t do this work alone as advocates, as lawyers, as organizers, as researchers, and so really just helping to plant the seeds with the youth to help for your future.

Charles T. Brown:

Dr. DeMarcus Jenkins also stresses the importance of students having agency and independence from an overpoliced school environment.

DeMarcus Jenkins: I think students are looking for opportunities to learn how to have restorative conversations with their peers and with their teachers. I think students are looking for educational context where their personal needs are being met, where they feel that they are safe to take academic risks where they can be wrong and make mistakes, and that does not fundamentally alter the direction of their life. Where students can have a disagreement with their teacher or with their peer, and that doesn’t lead them on a trajectory to being incarcerated or to being arrested or receiving a sanction from school officials, including police.

I think their dreams in that way are very possible. I think they are very possible. I don’t think it’s a far stretch to allow our students to feel safe at schools by teaching them that redemption is possible and that you could make a mistake, and educators can still provide you with the tools to write those mistakes and to address and apologize and to do that. And I think those ideas as students are having, and in a lot of ways, teachers and administrators too are pushing for those same sort of ideas. I think those are coming to head or coming to battle with this broader notion or this broader idea that the only way to ensure school safety is through police presence.

I think that has to be a lot of disentangling of sort of this long held idea that police are the necessary intervention tool personnel to handle school safety, and then really start to think differently about how we approach that in our schools, especially schools that serve low income communities, often Black and Brown youth. Often those schools are receiving Title I supports. Often those schools have high numbers of students with disabilities or exceptional needs as well, right? So I think it’s really the question of how do we really begin to think differently about what we can do for students in those learning contexts?

Charles T. Brown:

Talking about police in schools is just a piece of a larger conversation about the health and wellbeing of Black children and children of color. Black kids might face educational obstacles because they come in contact with a school resource officer. They might also have teachers who don’t know how to connect with them. There are school districts and communities of color that refuse to keep their facilities open afterschool hours. Think of how many children might better succeed with expanded afterschool access to libraries, gyms, and other amenities. Think of how many children have needed a nurse, a guidance counselor, an adult who could stand up for them and instead find a police officer who unjustly punishes them. Let’s work on doing better for our children, all of our children.

I want to thank my guests, Corey Mitchell, Dr. DeMarcus Jenkins, and Amir Whitaker. I also want to thank all of our Patreon subscribers. Special shout out to Dan Allison, Ian MacPhail-Bartley, and Catherine Gers, who is also our first contributor at the community advocate level. Please forgive me if I got any of your names wrong, but I do truly appreciate your support.

If you don’t already follow the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts, then please do so. This podcast is totally self-funded, so please check out our new Patreon, that’s the best way to contribute, join our community, and get access to all new exclusive content. I’m on Twitter @ctbrown1911 and Instagram @arrestedmobilitypodcast. And make sure you follow me on LinkedIn as well. Thank you so much for your support. This podcast is a production of Equitable Cities with support from Puddle Creative.