Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

We Ignore the Pain of Black Children

As a pediatrician, I know how dangerous this is
By Rebekah Fenton — March 23, 2021 5 min read
Silhouettes of police officer and young student
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I am a pediatrician. It is my job to respond to young people’s needs. I listen and see them as the experts of their own lives. But even within medicine, not everyone does this, and the needs of Black people are systematically ignored. The physical pain that Black people experience is both under-recognized and undertreated, and young people are no exception. In a study of appendicitis management in emergency departments, for instance, Black children were less likely to receive the appropriate pain medication despite reporting the same pain scores as white children.

Emotional pain is even less visible and, therefore, harder to recognize. Adults caring for young people need to trust their expressions of anxiety or feeling unsafe and protect them from harm. But when Black students demand an end to ongoing trauma from police, the adults charged with protecting them often dismiss their voices. Black and brown youth activists have called for police-free schools, citing the disproportionate harm to Black and brown students, including extreme punishment for minor offenses, sexual harassment, and anxiety in the presence of police—all of which is supported by research.

In the 2015-16 school year, Black high school students nationwide made up 31 percent of arrests and referrals to law enforcement but only 15 percent of school enrollment. A 2018 Texas-based study found that increasing the numbers of school resource officers led to a decline in high school graduation and college-enrollment rates for all students. An investigation of the Chicago public schools in 2017 found that school resource officers had little oversight, accountability, or training and put Black students at higher risk of incarceration. As a pediatrician, I aim to see every child thrive by providing the resources they need to succeed within their context. The school-to-prison pipeline has threatened the futures of young Black and brown people for decades, and school resource officers contribute to this crisis.

We need to believe Black children. Believe their hurt. Believe in their innocence.

The killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed brought national attention to the police-free school campaign. A few cities across the country, including Minneapolis; Oakland, Calif.; and Portland, Ore.; ended their district contracts with school resource officers. And the debates continue in districts throughout the country. As I see it, the continuance of school resource officer programs, despite their demonstrated and verbalized harms to Black students, reflects a much larger and problematic issue by extension: as a nation, we have been conditioned to distrust Black young people.

Black children are not given the same grace as white children because adults, including police officers, tend to see them as more mature than they are. According to one study, Black children as young as 5 to 10 years old are no longer viewed as innocent or worthy of protection, but rather as “bad.”

But they are not bad. Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun, an age-appropriate activity, when he was killed by police at the age of 12. Trayvon Martin was 17, wearing a hoodie on his walk home, when, unprovoked, George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood-watch coordinator, approached and then killed him. We see this pattern of criminalization also in public schools. In 2020, 17-year-old Caleb Reed shared his experience of being arrested and held for six hours by a school resource officer. His “crime?” He left his ID card inside the gym when he stepped outside of a school sporting event. I can’t watch the news or scroll through social media without seeing videos of police officers slamming students to the ground. These assaults by police officers in school are tracked on an #AssaultAt map by the Alliance for Educational Justice’s initiative, We Came to Learn. I counted a total of 12 incidents nationally in 2019. I worry that a return to school with resource officers present will once again make Black students disproportionately vulnerable to arrest.

We need to believe Black children. Believe their hurt. Believe in their innocence. Believe that they deserve to learn from their mistakes without a criminal record. And not hold them to a different standard from their white peers.

In Chicago, where I live, Black students have four times as many police interactions in school as white students. The extent of their arrests and feelings of unsafety has been alarming. As both a physician and Black woman, I felt compelled to get involved, to demonstrate with actions and not just words, that Black lives matter.

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During the last year, I leveraged the expertise of my fellow physicians to amplify the voices of Chicago’s young people. I texted friends who readily joined the cause. As “physicians for police-free schools,” we showed up wherever there were conversations: social media, protests, City Council meetings, even one-on-one meetings with school board members. We strategized with youth-serving community organizations, organized presentations for our peers, and co-led a webinar for hundreds of health-care providers in Illinois. Chicago’s board of education voted against ending the school resource officer program by only one vote. Yet 17 schools voted to remove SROs, decreasing the district’s contract expenditure by $18 million. Chicago public schools also introduced new reforms, such as implementation of school resource officer selection criteria, increased training, compliance monitoring, and research.

Although police may represent security for some, they do not signal or provide safety for Black young people. Their presence in schools as school resource officers amplifies those feelings of unsafety through continued discriminatory treatment on school grounds. To make learning environments truly safe for Black students, equip them with the resources that address the root causes of trauma and free them from the harm of overpolicing, we must invest in behavioral-health staffing and restorative-justice training. In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union released an analysis of 2015-16 federal civil rights data showing that 31 percent of students nationwide attended schools that have school resource officers but no psychologist, nurse, counselor, and/or social worker. Black children, like all children, deserve to be seen, loved, and treated as children.

As we start to see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, we see more and more districts across the country discuss how to safely reopen their school buildings. But at this moment, let’s not forget that COVID-19 isn’t the only thing that threatens school safety. If we really want to make schools safe for Black children, we must remove school resource officers from campuses.

Until we do so, our work for school safety is not finished.

A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as We Ignore the Pain of Black Children

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