In our Back to School series, we tackle the big issues students face, from police in schools to representation. Because returning to the classroom is about more than buying school supplies.
If getting police out of classrooms is on your back to school to-do list, you’re not alone.
As the Black Lives Matter movement focuses national attention on and defunding police forces, the movement for police-free schools is gaining traction across the country. School boards in , , , and announced in June and July that they’ll cut ties with their respective police departments, while Oakland eliminated an entire police force dedicated to its schools.
Those pushing for police-free schools see it as central to the fight for racial and social justice: Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students, as well as students with disabilities are arrested in school at rates higher than their white or able-bodied counterparts, according to the ACLU. For Black students in particular, who are more likely than white students to be punished for their behavior, zero tolerance policies for small infractions, like tardiness, have of the school system through suspensions and expulsions. That often leads to contact with juvenile or adult criminal justice systems, helping form a pipeline. Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection reveals that the rate at which Black students are suspended and expelled is three times greater than that for white students.
“Police do not equal safety. We don’t pay firefighters to sit on the corner to wait for a fire. We invest in smoke alarms.”
Suspensions and expulsions can have longterm consequences on a student’s life: Research on schools in Texas has found that students who were suspended or expelled were more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system, drop out of school, or repeat a grade; a nationwide study also found that suspension increases the likelihood that a student will be incarcerated as an adult.
Yet, despite the research that shows school policing has a disparate impact on Black and brown students, the practice persists. So many students — 1.7 million in the U.S. — go to schools with police officers, yet no counselors. Three million are in schools with police but no nurses, according to .
“Police do not equal safety,” says Jasmine Williams, communications and development manager for the , the organization that led the push for Oakland to eliminate its school police force. “We don’t pay firefighters to sit on the corner to wait for a fire. We invest in smoke alarms.”
Students, of course, need to be safe at school. Advocates argue that police on campus isn’t the way to do it. Instead, they suggest alternative safety and justice measures, like mental health counselors and restorative justice programs.
Mashable spoke with Williams and Maria Fernandez, the campaign strategist for the #PoliceFreeSchools campaign at the Advancement Project, an organization that supports community-level racial justice efforts, about how students, parents, and community members can join the movement to bring more just systems of discipline into their own schools.
1. Know the history
Police haven’t always been a fixture on school campuses. “I think there are misconceptions on when [police] showed up in our schools,” Fernandez says, noting that this makes it difficult to understand why they’re there in the first place.
Since police first started appearing on school campuses in the late 1940s and early 1950s, proponents have justified their presence in different ways, she points out. For instance, she notes, in 1948, the Los Angeles School Police Department was formed as a school security unit in response to integrating neighborhoods, claiming it helped protect property that might get damaged in schools in response. It’s currently the largest independent school police department in the U.S.
The first “” program, which allows police departments to deploy law enforcement officers in schools, in Flint, Michigan, in 1953. The program’s stated purpose was to “improve community relations between the city’s youth and the local police department,” according to the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. Other cities soon followed suit.
Then, the Gun Free Schools Act of 1994 mandated that schools expel students who brought a weapon to campus, helping spawn zero tolerance policies for small infractions that are widespread today. Notably, Fernandez says, the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado in 1999 lead to a dramatic increase in funding for police in schools.
“It’s a culture of policing, and it’s a systemic issue,” Williams says of the way police have appeared in schools. All of this history has led to today’s system, which Williams says, isn’t properly protecting students.
2. Get the facts
Police presence at schools looks different from city to city, Fernandez notes.
If you’re trying to advocate for police-free schools in your area, first establish what kind of police presence exists at your school. Fernandez suggests first looking into the basics: “What is the role of police in our schools? Are they part of a local police department? Is there a contract? When is it voted on?” If you’re going to present this information at, say, a school board meeting (more on that later), she notes you’ll also want to look into arrest and suspension data in order to convey why the system endangers students.
Fernandez notes you should look for racial disparities: What’s the Black student population at the school, and what’s the percentage of Black students being suspended, arrested, or expelled? Are Black students, students of color, or students with disabilities being suspended, arrested or expelled at a disproportionate rate?
To find this data, she suggests asking the school district, looking into school discipline reports, or filing a (Freedom of Information Act) request, which allows public access to federal agency records. The Advancement Project provides scripts for those looking to file a FOIA request in their district.
You can also try the Civil Rights Data Collection. This biennial report from the Department of Education (DOE) includes data about which students get referred to law enforcement, expelled, or suspended, with breakdowns by race and ethnicity. Though the latest available data from this report is from 2015-2016, you could still use it to show a pattern of discriminatory policing.
If data about the school district in your community proves difficult to find, you can also look for larger patterns of racial disparities, like in Education Week‘s nationwide analysis of the DOE’s data.
Beyond data, Fernandez suggests centering student narratives and experiences with police violence as you work to convey how your school might be contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline, why the system of school policing in your community needs to change, or that police aren’t keeping students safe.
For example, she notes that schools might not track instances of police yelling at, berating, or harassing students, yet a hostile, overly-policed campus can contribute to a school-to-prison pipeline like suspensions and expulsions do. Students could develop negative relationships with law enforcement, which might lead to police encounters down the road, Fernandez points out.
3. Organize peers
Working towards police-free schools takes time, and strong community organizing is crucial, says Williams. The Black Organizing Project was formed in 2011, and only just scored a major victory in late June, when the Oakland Unified School District announced it would eliminate its police department.
Success, for the Black Organizing Project, wasn’t just about this one big public victory, Williams notes. Instead, success meant fostering a sense of community around the issue. That’s why she suggests building a base for organizing in your area by talking and listening to everyone involved, including teachers, students, parents, community members, and school officials. The Black Organizing Project, for example, conducted listening sessions throughout the community where they heard from teachers, for instance, about their concerns with policing.
You should also connect with grassroots community organizations already doing this work in your community. Fernandez adds that doing so can also help you remain accountable to a broader group of people.
You may face pushback in your community or struggle to find widespread support. If that’s the case, Williams suggests framing the issue in an accessible way with data, personal stories, and thoughtful conversations.
4. Determine your demands
Because the presence of police in schools varies by location, Fernandez notes that specific demands will vary as well. At the core, though, the central goal is the same: The removal of police from campuses.
So, if the school district in your area has a contract with the police department, your demand might be simple: End that contract. If the school district in your area has its own police force or office of school safety, your demand would be to eliminate it, as Oakland did. In all instances, your long-term goal might also include cutting budgets for school police departments and safety officers. You might also include the removal of structures that contribute to a culture of policing, like metal detectors and facial recognition technology.
5. Provide an alternative
What you’re demanding in addition to a police-free campus is ultimately up to you, Fernandez notes. Schools should keep their students safe, so as you prepare to present your data and demands to school or city officials, you’ll want to identify alternative safety methods.
Finding alternatives will prove critical even if the school district in your area has already cut ties with police, Williams and Fernandez both point out. Maybe they’ve pledged to remove school resource officers from campuses, but what are they replacing them with? Are they ramping up other surveillance methods instead? In Minneapolis, for instance, where the school board voted to cancel its police department contract, the teachers union discovered a new job posting for “public safety support specialists” with law enforcement degrees, according to Minneapolis-St. Paul newspaper City Pages. Advocates felt as if this was too similar to police on campus, so teachers and families protested their lack of involvement in the search for alternative safety.
You might consider looking into what cities that have eliminated school police forces or ended contracts with police have suggested. For example, Oakland suggested reallocating funding that once went to police officers to social workers, mental health experts, or restorative justice practitioners.
Social workers and mental health experts might identify and assist students who are struggling with their mental health, or are prone to behavioral issues, Williams points out. This helps “address the root issues” that could become safety concerns, without intervention. For matters of discipline, restorative justice practitioners could determine what form of justice or healing makes sense for an infraction that otherwise might have resulted in detention, suspension, or expulsion.
With respect to student safety, there are other options too: The Toronto District School Board ended its school resource officer program in 2017, and replaced it with unarmed school safety monitors, who resolve student conflict and patrol the school grounds for intruders, according to Chalkbeat. (School principals can still call the police, and there are situations in which schools have to notify police of incidents, though that protocol is under review.) In some cases, these school safety monitors might be coaches or community members, and no law enforcement background is required.
To figure out which option might work best, talk to the community. If you know someone who went to a school without a campus police present, have them attest to their experience. Consider these questions: Do you have counselors on campus? What happens when teachers need to discipline a student? Do you have alternatives to suspensions and expulsions? Are there systems in place for students to talk through conflicts?
She points out that students in Philadelphia who went to school a few blocks from each other did this when working with the Advancement Project to put together demands. They asked why their school was different, and why they didn’t have police on campus, despite being nearby. The key is to question what’s stopping other schools from adopting the same practices as yours.
“They’ll always ask you, ‘Where has it been done?’ [And] you can explain, ‘Well, my school already does it.’ That demonstrates it actually works,” Fernandez says. “It’s always a good way of showing allyship.”
6. Decide where to take your demands
Once you’ve collected data, organized with other community members, and determined your demands, Fernandez recommends making a petition compiling what you know about your district’s school policing policies and what should change.
Get students, parents, and community members in your area to sign the petition first, Fernandez notes, since this can convey the level of community support behind the police-free movement.
To establish who you should present a petition to, she says there are two factors to keep in mind: What kind of policing structure your district uses, and who ultimately signs off on it.
In a school district with its own police force, like Los Angeles, you’ll likely need to target the person or group who determines school budget, whereas to end a school’s contract with a police department, you’ll have to go through the school board, since that’s typically who reauthorizes or terminates contracts.
Williams and Fernandez both stress that you won’t present your demands once and wait for something to change. You will need to continue to do the work. Building momentum around the police-free movement in your own community will take an ongoing, focused effort.
Fernandez suggests using momentum you build right now to make sure student, parent, and community voices are heard on school board task forces or working groups around police-free demands down the road so that alternative justice and safety measures reflect the needs of the community, and those disproportionately affected by campus police. This will require regular work, like showing up at school board meetings and routinely writing letters and emails, but, in cities across the country, some schools seem to be finally listening.
“The moment is now to make the demands the movement wants,” Fernandez says. “The level of solidarity feels incredible. When one city wins, it makes it possible for all cities.”