In the wake of the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many other Black people, the country has been gripped by sustained protests aimed at dismantling systemic racism. An important new focus of the movement is growing — removing cops from public schools.
Young people and students in Phoenix, New York and Chicago are organizing around the demand. From Minneapolis to Portland, Oregon and Rochester, New York, school boards have debated cutting ties with school cops.
The Alliance for Educational Justice calls for “police-free schools.” And the Advancement Project stated that “officers that roam school hallways are no different from the officers on the streets.” They engage in race and gender discrimination and send many down the pipeline to jail.
The breakdown. Known as School Resource Officers, or SROs, these cops have been inside U.S. schools since 1953, when they first appeared in Flint, Michigan, a majority Black city. The continued growth of SROs was a direct response to Black and brown student organizing in the 1950s and ‘60s.
SROs became a fixture with Clinton’s racist 1994 crime bill. The bill, initially written by Senator Joe Biden, added 100,000 new cops nationwide, allocated $9 billion to prisons, and expanded funding for SROs.
It is no mystery where Trump stands on cops in schools. But before Trump there was Obama, who proposed $150 million for SROs. And while Biden was Obama’s head of school safety he declared that “those school resource officers were of value.”
Currently, more than 40 percent of public schools have SROs with firearms. In New York City there over 5,100 SROs, making it one of the largest police forces anywhere. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, a projected $33 million will be transferred from the city’s education budget to the police department to help pay for this, with the total police budget for “school safety” over $300 million. At the same time, the city’s schools have an $800 million deficit and teachers purchase classroom supplies out of their own pockets.
A local high schooler noted, “The NYPD has more control over school safety than the Department of Education and gives students, parents, and teachers no agency to counter their laws.” This lack of accountability cannot be tolerated.
Race and more. SROs are present in 43 percent of all schools nationwide and in 70 percent of high schools. For every 1 percent increase in the proportion of Black students in a school, the number of SROs rises 3 percent. And Black students are disciplined twice as often as white students.
Having police in schools means that children are at risk for being arrested. Yet according to the ACLU, “there is no evidence that increased police presence in schools improves school safety. Indeed, in many cases, it causes harm. When in schools, police officers do what they are trained to do, which is detain, handcuff, and arrest.”
Due to systemic racism, children of color get arrested more. In 28 states, the number of Black students arrested is 10-20 percent higher than their actual enrollment.
Latinx children in Connecticut comprise 25 percent of students in schools with SRO arrests but 35 percent of those arrested. Native Americans in Arizona comprise 8 percent of students in schools with SRO arrests but 23 percent of those arrested.
Those with behavioral issues are also at higher risk. The ACLU took up the cases of two children
of color who were shackled around their biceps for conduct related to their attention deficit disorder. It noted that “students of color and students with disabilities are especially vulnerable to push-out trends and the discriminatory application of discipline.”
So too do Black girls face double discrimination. Comprising 16 percent of female students in public schools, they are more than 33 percent of females arrested at school.
Race, gender, and oppression based on disabilities add to the ever-present class oppression. Overall, you are far more likely to find an SRO in a working-class public school than in a private school for the superrich.
From classroom to jail. Criminal charges against students are simply a matter of turning otherwise normal behavior into criminal acts. Whereas white children get warnings, Black and brown children get charged.
According to Erika Chavarria, an activist teacher in a majority Black Maryland high school, “Instead of students being taught how to deal with their emotions and mistakes, they are referred to law enforcement and charged with crimes. Shoving another child is assault and battery. Talking back is disorderly conduct. Taking a toy is theft. Now they’re criminals. Next stop is prison.”
The mere presence of SROs increases suspensions and expulsions by 21 percent. And more than 75 percent of Black students who do not graduate high school wind up in prison.
The school-to-prison pipeline is intertwined with bipartisan “education reform,” a big business plan which began under Bush Senior and continued under each successive administration.
One aim of corporate education reform is to privatize public schools and create profit-generating enterprises.
Insisting that public schools reopen despite the pandemic, Trump threatened that “if the school is closed, the money should follow the student,” even if that means to a private or parochial school. This would transfer public tax dollars into private enterprises.
Against this backdrop is the reality that SROs are overrepresented in schools with a majority of students of color in a country with a gaping chasm of income and wealth inequality. Trump’s position amounts to creating a two-tiered education system. Private schools for those who have the means to afford them, and police-patrolled public schools for low-income Black and brown students.
This is structural racism.
The road forward. A group of activist educators called Uniting To Save Our Schools “views the transformations of public schools and of our racist, capitalist system as one united struggle.” The Massachusetts Teachers Association stated, “We must end the presence of police in public schools and instead invest in social support systems.” Organized labor should back the teachers.
The Freedom Socialist Party agrees it’s time to disarm SROs and remove them from schools. Students should be taught their rights when confronted by police. And let’s slash money from the police and military budget to fund quality, free public education for all.
Let’s enroll kids in school, not the criminal justice system!
Contact Maloney, a retired New Jersey educator, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Strauss, a neurologist, at email@example.com.