As the nation reels from the murders of unarmed Black people at the hands of law enforcement agents—George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery being the most recent to garner attention in a historic and ongoing litany of death—educators across the nation are questioning police presence in their schools.
Then on June 2, the Minneapolis Board of Education passed a resolution that would end its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department.
The contract paid for 11 school resource officers, at a cost of $1.1 million. Education Minnesota and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers both urged an end to the partnership.
While students, parents, educators and community members have pressed to remove police from Minneapolis schools for years, the issue heated up in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis on May 25—an unnecessary loss that fomented outrage and moved millions of Americans to action in the streets and in policy-making circles.
“It shouldn’t have taken another killing of a Black man at the hands of police to act, but we are thankful the school board listened and severed financial ties with the Minneapolis Police Department,” says Greta Callahan, president-elect of the teachers’ chapter of MFT. “We applaud the Board of Education for saying, #EnoughMPD. This is just the first step in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline and the racism our students of color face every day.”
The Chicago Teachers Union has also agitated for an end to police presence in its public schools, where the school system spends $30 million a year on a contract with city police. A central theme of CTU’s strike last year was “counselors not cops”: Money spent on policing could instead go to more school psychologists, social workers, counselors and support for students in crisis. The CTU contract succeeded in winning more funding for counselors but police presence remains.
The Huffington Post reports that a Denver school board member is considering a resolution similar to the one in Minneapolis, and numerous districts are weighing the matter as well, including in Detroit, New York City, Phoenix and St. Louis.
Police presence in schools has become ubiquitous in many areas, increasing dramatically in recent years. Some educators feel safer with additional forces in the schools, especially in the wake of school shootings, but police presence can make schools feel militarized and distract from learning. And according to research published by Brookings, they do not necessarily make schools safer for anyone.
In particular, many students of color feel threatened by law enforcement officers who frequently view them as potential criminals rather than children. According to the Advancement Project, 70 percent of students involved in school arrests or referred to law enforcement from school are African American or Hispanic. Encounters with officers at school can be the beginning of the school-to-prison pipeline.
“The combination of overly harsh school policies and an increased role of law enforcement in schools has created a schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track,” says the Schott Foundation in its overview of school discipline. “Huge numbers of youth are pushed out of school and into prisons and jails.” While focus is frequently on Black boys, Black girls are also disproportionately targeted, as the young voices featured in Schott’s “Black Girls Matter” report painfully reveal.
In its 2017 report, the ACLU outlines some of the minor infractions that students have been criminally charged with or punished for, from throwing a paper airplane to wearing saggy pants. Other reports have included the Florida kindergartner who was arrested for having a tantrum, and the high school student dragged down a staircase in Chicago. “While there is a troubling amount of real violence among some juveniles, police presence in schools has led to the criminalization of ordinary adolescent misbehavior,” according to a policy brief from the Sentencing Project. And the statistic say nothing about the deep embarrassment and shame experienced by a child who has been handcuffed and treated like a criminal in front of peers.
While some people defend school police as potential mentors and teachers, the ACLU says that police, “who have neither the training nor direct mandate to act as mental health specialists or trauma counselors,” should not be expected to play that role. “Trained professionals and educators whose responsibility is foremost to the students and the school should fill these roles.” The AFT will examine the issue further in its professional development series at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference beginning Aug. 31. This year the series will focus on the criminalization of schools.
Meanwhile, MFT continues to be active with other protesters mourning the death of George Floyd. All four officers involved in his death have now been arrested. MFT urges readers to continue to sign this petition and will continue to support the movement for justice.