Guest Commentary - Abolishing school police should be part of reopening plans

By Jackie Byers, Special to |  School districts, teachers and policymakers across California are determining how to get more...

By Jackie Byers, Special to | 

School districts, teachers and policymakers across California are determining how to get more students back to in-person learning as safely as possible. While these conversations are important, the continued decriminalization of Black and Brown students, and the abolition of school police must be central to any plan for reopening schools. 

Mitigating the impact of COVID-19 provides an important opportunity to push ourselves to radically reimagine what safety really means for students. School policing is an unsafe, racist practice that brings disproportionate harm to Black communities and communities of color. Even during distance learning, students are facing the effects of harsh discipline. One example is a 15-year-old in Michigan who was put in juvenile detention last year during the pandemic when a judge decided that not completing her schoolwork violated her probation.

While the current context is new, the criminalization of youth of color in schools isn’t; Black students in particular have disproportionately suffered the harmful effects of school policing for decades. In Oakland, the migration of Southern Black families to the Bay Area in the 1940s and 1950s spurred police and school collaboration to target Black youth pathologized as “delinquents” and worse. Over time, Oakland, like many other American cities, built a devastating police presence in its schools, costing millions a year and impacting thousands. 

Over the last four years in Oakland, where I’ve lived and organized for years, Black students accounted for 76% of student arrests by school police, and just 29% of the school-age population. This systemic racism is evident across the country. Not only are Black students arrested by school police at a higher rate, but they are more likely to go to schools with an active police presence.   

It is largely because of school policing that our country’s education system has been complicit in building the school-to-prison pipeline, contributing immeasurably to mass incarceration and the criminalization of our young people of color. Instead of introducing Black children to lifelong mentors, our schools are the first place they encounter police. It is the trauma of those encounters that has a lasting impact on their lives. 

The repercussions of school policing became clear in Oakland in 2011, when 20-year-old Raheim Brown was killed by Oakland Unified School District police. In the wake of Raheim’s death, community members led by the Black Organizing Project organized a  campaign to transform the climate and culture of Oakland schools and abolish its internal police department. 

Ten years later, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the Oakland Unified School District board unanimously passed the George Floyd Resolution for Police Free Schools. The resolution moves us closer to the vision of a city whose schools are Black sanctuaries.

Oakland is not alone in this vision. We have seen the widespread calls to end relationships between schools and police and to abolish contracts and departments altogether. In cities from Denver to Los Angeles, to Phoenix and Minneapolis, officials are exploring and moving forward with plans to get police out of schools. 

This growing movement reflects an understanding that real safety for students doesn’t come from school police. It comes from the community, with access to support services like counselors. As the pandemic forces us to reassess how schools can best meet the needs of students, eliminating police frees up much-needed funding for these supports.

The success of our movement reveals important lessons on how we can transform local systems that punish Black youth through community centered processes: put young people, parents, and community members at the center of the work; keep fighting for transformational change, not just incremental, feel-good actions; and push plans that hold institutions accountable for stepping up and providing the necessary resources.  

For a lot of people, having police in schools is the accepted status quo; it is how things have always been. It is time to imagine a different path to safety, security and Black sanctuary, one that returns schools to their core purpose – supporting all students to learn and thrive. 

Jackie Byers is founding executive director of the Black Organizing Project, Grove News is a media partner

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Steve L said...

While I can appreciate and respect Ms. Byers opinion and her right to express it, there is another side to this story and certainly other opinions that may not be as radical as removal off all police presence at our schools. The facts of Ms. Byer's reference to the Rahiem Brown case is a bit misguided. Brown was a 20-year old, attempting to steal a car from an Oakland high school. When approached by school police he allegedly ran toward an officer with a screwdriver attempting to stab the officer when another officer fatally shot him. He wasn't a student.

I'll admit that records reflect African-Americans are arrested incredibly disproportionately than other races by school police. The answer to the problem doesn't necessarily require police be banned from schools. It requires better training and education of these specific officers to better relate to and understand today's students, their needs and concerns.

Since 2000, there have been 301 school shootings in the US. Six have resulted in over 10 deaths and nine have resulted in over five deaths. With the exception of 2020, due to school closures, there have been over 12 schools shootings each year since 2012. There were 55 schools shootings recorded in 2019 alone, 36 in 2018.

Since 2015, 91 of the reported 147 school shootings resulted in zero fatalities. I'll argue this is largely due to the presence of police on our campuses protecting our kids and teachers.

Ms. Byers may be a bit extreme when she states, "school policing is an unsafe, racist practice; abolition of school police must be central to any plan for reopening schools."

This just leaves schools, teachers and administrators fodder for "open season" to misguided, upset, and mentally ill students. Police presence is needed. Let's not forget Columbine, Newtown or Parkland. So many lives could have been saved had officers been on site and acted swiftly.

I'll offer another solution to the systemic racism that results in African-American students being arrested disproportionately. All school based police officers need federally mandated specific training in adolescent conflict resolution, student counseling, de-escalation tactics, and implicit bias training to quell the systemic racism that seems rather evident in the number of minority school arrests. Should these training tactics fail to work, parents will be glad that an armed, trained police officer was present on campus to protect their child.

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