Social Studies

Should Students Be Taught How to Deal With Police?

By Brenda Iasevoli — July 07, 2017 3 min read
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New Jersey students in kindergarten through 12th grade may soon get lessons in how to interact with cops “in a manner marked by mutual cooperation and respect.”

Bill A1114, passed unanimously by the General Assembly, would require each school district to instruct students on their rights, as well as the ins and outs of dealing with law enforcement. The lessons would begin in the 2018-2019 school year as part of the social studies curriculum if the bill becomes law.

According to a press release from Assembly Democrats, lessons must relate information on the police officer’s role and responsibilities in keeping the public safe. But lessons will also address students’ responsibility to comply with an officer’s commands as well as their constitutional rights during police interactions.

Assembly Democrat Sheila Oliver, who sponsored the legislation, said it could help rebuild the trust in law enforcement that has broken down as a result of police-related shootings across the country. The effort may be needed now more than ever as police forces stationed on school campuses have risen to more than 44,000 across the country. There were nearly 70,000 school arrests nationwide in the 2013-2014 school year, and in most states, black students are far more likely to be arrested, according to a recent analysis of federal civil rights data by Education Week.

Yet critics of the bill say it places the responsibility for peaceful police interactions largely on young people’s shoulders. Zellie Imani, a New Jersey teacher and activist, described the proposed curriculum as tantamount to “victim-blaming” in an interview with NBC News.

“This legislation does not empower young people, especially those living in brown and Black communities,” Imani said. “Instead, it empowers law enforcement by allowing them to continue to evade accountability for abuse and misconduct while forcing the burden on the public.”

Similar legislation has been proposed in other states. The governor of Texas in June signed a new law requiring high schools teach “certain public school students” how to interact with police. But that law requires police officers get training in how to interact with civilians as well.

Oliver defended the New Jersey bill as proactive, a way of giving young people the power to prevent tense situations from turning tragic by preparing them on how to respond.

“This is not about assigning blame or responsibility, but rather an attempt to empower our young people so they know what to do and what not do,” said Oliver in a statement. “This is a lesson many parents already teach to their children. Making it part of the school curriculum is the next logical step.”

Still, the controversy raises the question of whether police should be the ones to get more practice in how to peacefully interact with civilians, rather than the other way around. Ideally, police should get the extra training, Portia Allen-Kyle, the Pratt Criminal Justice Transparency Fellow at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, told NBC News, but teaching kids their rights and preparing them to deal with police is better than doing nothing at all.

“Knowing your rights helps you to know when they are violated,” Allen-Kyle said.

Students in kindergarten through 4th grade will learn different lessons from those in 5th through 12th grade. But how those lessons will differ is not yet known since the curriculum will likely not be written until after the bill becomes law.

Once that happens, the commissioner of the department of education will have to appoint an advisory committee that will help develop the curriculum. The committee must include one representative from groups such as the New Jersey State Policemen’s Benevolent Association, the state’s Fraternal Order of Police, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, the New Jersey Council for Social Studies, and the American Federation of Teachers-New Jersey.

The bill now awaits Senate consideration.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.