School Climate & Safety Opinion

The Police-Free Schools Movement Made Headway. Has It Lost Momentum?

Removing officers from school hallways is only the start
By Judith Browne Dianis — June 21, 2021 4 min read
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It’s been just over one year since George Floyd’s murder sparked a national conversation on the role of police in our communities and in schools. The decadeslong fight for police-free schools was finally propelled into the national spotlight as numerous school districts nationwide severed ties with local police.

Youth organizers, activists, and supporters of the movement (myself included) rejoiced that the pendulum on ridding schools of police—particularly in communities of color—finally began to swing toward meaningful change. The public has finally begun to recognize that police are more likely to criminalize students than protect them from external threats.

As a leader in the police-free schools movement, I’ve spent 20 years organizing and helping advocacy organizations combat discriminatory school discipline policies that disproportionately push students of color out of the classroom and into the criminal legal system. I’ve worked with school districts in Denver; Alexandria, Va.; and Miami-Dade County to define and limit the role of police in schools. When we issued the first national call to action for “police-free schools” with the Alliance for Educational Justice in 2018, grounded in years of youth organizing, people did not believe police-free schools were a possibility.

My, how times have changed.

When the Minneapolis school board cut ties with the Minneapolis police department last June—in the city where George Floyd was killed—a domino effect followed in other cities, including Denver, Seattle, Phoenix, and Portland, Ore. Following years of demands from the Black Organizing Project, the Oakland, Calif., school board even committed to abolishing the school district’s police department. These wins continue today: As recently as last month, Alexandria, Va., divested $800,000 from its school police budget and reinvested those funds in mental-health supports. In fact, at least 35 school districts across the country have taken steps to end policing in their schools since Floyd was murdered last year.

But as districts prepare to reopen their schoolhouse doors this fall, the pendulum seems to be shifting back to business as usual.

The U.S. Department of Justice continues to offer schools hundreds of millions of dollars under the guise of “school safety” to monitor students through anonymous reporting systems, social-media surveillance, and threat-assessment teams that coordinate with law enforcement. These are dangerous and unproven practices that disproportionately criminalize Black and brown students.

A few months after cutting ties with the Minneapolis police department, the city’s school board employed tools to digitally surveil their students. The school board also hired “school safety specialists” to provide security as a “bridge” between in-school interventions and law enforcement. Many of these “specialists” had law-enforcement backgrounds, which means, yes, the policing continues even when the officers themselves are removed.

Removing officers from school hallways plays just one small part in taking down the school policing system. Let’s begin with the definition of what police-free schools entails: dismantling school policing infrastructure, culture, and practice; ending school militarization and surveillance; and building a new liberatory education system.

Schools cannot be fully “police free” until each one of these steps is taken.

Getting police physically out of schools is only the beginning. We must listen to what young people need to feel safe and free in their schools and then follow through. Student demands might include a school-based violence-interruption model that does not involve law enforcement, such as the one at Black Swan Academy in the nation’s capital. They might include the Black Sanctuary Pledge—as organized by Freedom Inc. in Madison, Wis., and inspired by Oakland’s Black Organizing Project. The pledge asks educators to not call the cops on children and to educate themselves on what students need to have a sanctuary in their schools. Other worthy demands include investing in restorative and transformative justice, offering mental-health supports, and giving students and families who’ve suffered the most at the hands of police decisionmaking power in schools.

Despite last year’s national uprisings, we have witnessed police continuing to harm and kill Black and brown people. In April, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was killed by a Columbus, Ohio, police officer who shot her several times in front of her foster care home. Ma’Khia was wearing the same crocs that my beautiful daughter wears. The officer who took her life is the same kind of officer that would be trusted by the Columbus school district to “protect” children like Ma’Khia from harm in their places of learning.

Just this January, as students began returning to school in person, a young Black girl in Kissimmee, Fla., was body-slammed to the floor by a school resource officer. The assault was so gruesome that the girl’s mother says she is “suffering from memory loss, headaches, blurry vision, and sleep deprivation.”

Students cannot and will not be safe at the hands of law enforcement, let alone more law enforcement. The experiences of countless students, educators, and families have taught us that police in schools create a toxic climate and fuel the school-to-prison pipeline. There is no evidence that school police officers make students safer; in fact, there is only evidence they make students and schools less safe.

Every dollar spent on police, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras is a dollar that would be better invested in trained professionals that support, not criminalize children. Children deserve spaces where they can learn, thrive, and feel safe to just be. Until then, the fight continues.

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