We are at a precipice. Advocates and school leaders in nearly 100 districts all over the country have called for the removal of police in schools as a means to disrupt the ever-expanding school-to-prison pipeline. This has largely been led by students, educators and community advocates.
Recently, over 16,000 DC residents signed on to comment on the mayor’s proposed budget increase for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Only a fraction were able to testify via Zoom. An overwhelming majority called on the D.C. Council to defund MPD and remove police from D.C. schools. Several DCPS students, mostly Black girls, joined the call. Every single student shared their frustration, anxiety and fear of police.
As education advocates, we’ve seen this fear up close. Black girls are regularly harassed and abused by police officers in school. And despite tightening education budgets, the ongoing movement against policing, and a growing economic crisis, some leaders are determined to increase police budgets and contracts worth millions of dollars with schools. These are not small contracts, in D.C. the contract is 23 million dollars annually, in Los Angeles the contract totals to 70 million dollars.
Why do we need police-free schools?
First and foremost, police do not make schools safer. The officers in schools are drawn from the same police departments that routinely target Black and Brown communities, sexually abuse citizens and cost cities hundreds of millions in misconduct settlements. As a result of these decisions, the history and culture of violence within police departments intimidate Black children and school communities daily.
The police play an outsized role in our schools. We’re seeing more and more evidence of police officers involved in non-violent situations, such as responding to homelessness or mental illness, and escalating them to the detriment of Black residents. School police do the same. They’re called into classrooms to deal with cell phones, “bad attitudes” and minor disciplinary issues that should be dealt with by teachers or social workers.
In the last two years, Black girls across D.C. have risen up against racist and sexist dress codes, explicitly demanding the end of police involvement in dress code enforcement. Many named instances of police stopping students from entering the building for wearing the wrong color shoes or pants, or demanding students remove items of clothing like headwraps and sweaters if they suspected a violation. Not only does this hurt students, but it also furthers a culture of harassment, racism and sexism.
Policing in schools also doesn’t affect all students equally. According to civil rights data from the Department of Education, Black girls make up 8% of girls enrolled in public schools, but 41% of girls arrested at school. In D.C., Black girls are more than 20 times more likely to be suspended than their White peers—the highest suspension rate in the country. And it’s not because Black students are misbehaving more often. They’re punished more harshly than their peers for the same or, often, non-existent offenses. The same stereotypes that result in police labeling Black people as threatening and dangerous affect our children in school.
Students need support—just not the kind police can offer
We have chosen to invest in policing over mental health professionals, social support systems and adults whose mission is to keep schools peaceful and students safe. And as a result of making the wrong investments, Black students are least likely to say they can reach out to a teacher or another trusted adult in the building for mental health support.
Some have argued that police are needed in school to keep students safe from campus shooters. But there is little to no evidence suggesting that school-based police officers stop school shootings. Research also shows most mass shooters are White, while most school police officers are placed in schools that serve students of color. D.C. students and grassroots organizations have pointed to the need for a different approach to safety, one that prioritizes community violence interrupters, mental health supports, social and emotional learning and transformative justice training for teachers, all of which are proven to create safer, healthier schools.
The good news is much of the country has come to a consensus: law enforcement does not belong in schools. School boards in Minneapolis, Oakland, Seattle and San Francisco voted to suspend or sever ties with school police programs. Some city leaders, like the D.C. Council, are moving massive policing contracts from police departments to education agencies, which is a good step but ignores the fact that two-thirds of D.C. voters support removing police from schools all together. Student leaders, especially those involved in the DC Girls’ Coalition and Black Swan Academy are spending their summer fighting for police-free schools and investments in their schools and communities. They want resources that will create safer, healthier schools. To learn free from police, policing and harassment. It’s past time we listen to them. We need police-free schools. Now.
Nia Evans is an organizer and policy strategist with a background in youth, gender and racial justice. As a campaign manager at the National Women’s Law Center, she managed national and state-based efforts to eradicate race and gender discrimination in K-12 schools.