Police-Free Schools Advocates Earn Big Wins; Movement Has National Momentum

Across the country, districts are ending contracts with police departments and a youth-led movement of advocates is pushing others to do the same.

School boards are cutting ties. ­Minneapolis. Portland, OR. ­Denver. Madison, WI. Milwaukee. Each city recently severed contracts with local police departments that had put officers in public schools for years. Across the country, districts large and small are deciding if they, too, will create police-free schools.

Opponents decry these as heat-of-the-moment decisions pushed by politics and public pressure amid ongoing protests. They say the loss of law enforcement will compromise school safety, but the statistics don’t support that claim and advocates for police- free schools ask if a school is truly safe for all students when police are there.

“Young African Americans already fear police,” says Tamia Williams, who works with Our Turn—a national nonprofit organization that seeks to elevate and amplify student voices to bring school reform and equity to education—in Charlotte, NC. “Why should they have to go to school, which is supposed to be a safe place, and be scared something is going to happen to them?”

Members of Our Turn Twin Cities fought for years to rid schools of Minneapolis PD. Here they are at a school board meeting in December 2018. Photo courtesy: Our Turn

Much like the weeks of protests themselves, discontinuing contracts with police departments started in Minneapolis and has pushed out in waves across the country. And much like the injustice that sent people into the streets during a pandemic, this movement was not born in eight minutes and 46 seconds on May 25, 2020.

“These things don’t just happen in a week or two weeks,” says Kenneth Eban, senior manager of organizing for Our Turn Twin Cities. “After George Floyd was murdered, it was obviously a watershed moment for many folks. But the conversation had been primed for years.”

Across the country, students and proponents of education equity and racial justice have been lobbying to remove law enforcement officers (also known as school resource officers or SROs) from schools for years. The Alliance for Educational Justice is a national youth-led nonprofit founded in 2009 that has spent more than a decade pushing districts for police-free schools. Individuals and organizations have been doing the work without getting results—until now. And as district by district makes decisions, and the years of speaking out beget tangible success, advocates are starting to believe this may truly be the moment things change.

As of the 2017–18 school year, there were more than 45,000 SROs working full or part-time in about 45 percent of the schools in the country, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). There are no national requirements or mandatory training to get the job where, NCES reports, a majority of officers carry firearms, tasers, chemical sprays, and handcuffs.

According to the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection for 2015–16 (the most recent report), 1.7 million students are in schools with police but no counselors, three million in schools with police but no nurses, six million in schools with police but no psychologists, 10 million in schools with police but no social workers, and 14 ­million students in schools with police but no counselor, nurse, ­psychologist, or social worker.

Statistics also show that officers in schools further systemic racism in education. In schools with SROs, Black students are more than twice as likely to receive law enforcement discipline than white students and three times more likely to attend a school with more security than mental health staff, the DOE report said. The Alliance for Educational Justice keeps a map of reported assaults by SROs on students, and video after video has shown officers using excessive force and handcuffing and arresting Black and brown students from elementary school through high school.

“It’s an insidious part of the school-to-prison pipeline,” says Maisy Card, teen services librarian at the Newark (NJ) Public Library, who worked in schools with and without armed officers before going to the public library. “You get kids used to thinking that it’s normal to be over policed and harassed in school. When you work at those schools, you can feel this constant interrogation, as if they are already guilty as soon as they step in the school. That’s not a space that kids can really feel free to learn and find themselves in.”

In Minneapolis, young people have spoken out on this issue for years. After Philando Castile was killed by police in a suburb of St. Paul, MN, in July 2016, Our Turn began advocating with local young activists and organizations, including Young People’s Action Coalition and Black Liberation Project, who were already speaking out to remove police from schools.

“We worked alongside them pushing for Minneapolis Public Schools to end their contract with the Minneapolis Police Department,” Eban says.

When it was time for the school board to make its decision to renew the contract with police in 2018, police-free school advocates were there to make their case.

“But what we learned in that moment was even if the Minneapolis School Board didn’t want to approve this contract, they had no alternative,” he says.

So the district signed the contract and Our Turn and others set out to find an option to officers. They spoke with stakeholders including SROs, teachers, principals, and administrators. In those conversations, Eban says, the reason for SROs was made clear. Teachers and principals wanted them in the building. And they were not there to protect against an outside intruder, but to protect students from each other and staff from students.

“That takes the view that students are threats to each other and students are threats, especially to our overwhelmingly white female teaching force,” says Eban.

Part of the problem, Card suspects, are teachers who don’t live in the community. She sees similarities with being a public librarian where she lives, working with patrons she sees in her neighborhood. Card avoids calling the police for issues at the library.

“It’s not something I would do,” she says. “I will try to work out the conflict myself, because they are neighbors. A lot of that protection is for outsiders.”

As conversations continued in Minneapolis, a highly publicized racist incident in the Minneapolis Police ­Department led activists to alter their message. This decision wasn’t just about safety, it was about who the school district was willing to partner with and pay, who shares their values. Eban believes that’s when board members started to really consider it.

Eban doesn’t necessarily deny a need for security, but suggests a new definition of “school security.” It should be about having people in the building who can de-escalate situations and protect students and the school environment, as well as putting restorative practices in place, he says.

The district is expected to have a safety plan for the 2020–21 school year by mid-August.

“I’m hoping Minneapolis Public Schools can be a real leader for this country on how we can make this happen to ensure students not only feel secure and safe in their buildings, but feel welcome in their buildings,” says Eban. “And [that] it’s an ­environment where student achievement can really take place.”

Others agree.

In Chicago, the teachers union wants the Chicago Public Schools to end its contract with police and use that funding for restorative practices and social workers in every school. This support is huge, as the teachers unions have often been one of the powerful entities keeping officers in schools.

In Los Angeles, the teachers union called for the elimination of the LA School Police.

“This is not about the police as people, this is about policing as an inappropriate institution in our schools,” the statement said.

Not every city and district is swayed, however.

In the largest public school district in the country, the New York City mayor said officers are needed, and, in DC, police funding remains on the budget. In Philadelphia, the Board of Education heard from current and past students during a hearing.

“Please, please, please, look at the research, look at the statistics, and you’ll find that they align perfectly with the experiences of your students and that police do not belong in our schools,” Aden Gonzales―a senior at Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, a magnet high school in the district, and member of the Philadelphia Student Union―said, according to a report on the hearing in The Philadelphia Public Schools Notebook. “With the current amount of money spent on police, we could hire over 500 guidance counselors.”

Allison Fortenbery, a rising senior at Masterman, recounted being and taken out of the security line to have her bag searched, according to the Notebook.

“School police don’t look at us like students,” she said. “They look at us like criminals. Police officers have no place in schools.”

Kennedi Cook, 21, grew up in DC and says she went to a school where she felt faculty and administration geniunely cared about hef. But after talking with students who attend Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) Public Schools, as part of Our Turn, she has seen the negative impact of a racist system on Black students and how important it is for the students to be heard.

"We need educators and administrators to be people who genuinely care and are willing to listen to the testimonies of Black students, so they can partner with us and help us to pave the way for our education system to be equitable, " Cook says.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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