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Prioritizing Children’s Wellness Over Cops: The Movement To End Policing In Schools

In the wake of protests that swept the United States after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, teachers, unions, and activist groups across the United States have renewed pushes to remove police from school districts.

Several school boards voted or are in the process of voting on resolutions that would defund school police forces

On June 23, the Los Angeles School Board voted against a proposal to slash the budget of the Los Angeles School Police Department by 90 percent over the next two years and rejected two other resolutions related to school policing. But teachers, unions, and activists have not abandoned their effort to remove police from schools in L.A.

In fact, two days later, the United Teachers of Los Angeles officially passed a resolution to eliminate school police in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“We should not be turning over discipline of our children or our children’s mental health to police officers. We should have the resources that make wellness a priority on all campuses, not policing,” said Georgia Flowers, an elementary school teacher in Los Angeles.

Flowers explained at her elementary school they have several students with special needs, but the school psychologist is only retained 1.5 days per week and other support staff aren’t provided.

“We end up routinely calling police to deal with children who are having reactions to trauma in their lives because we don’t have anything else,” Flowers added. “Police get called in to do non-police work because the funding is not where it should be. The funding is not being provided to address the things that would help our children to heal.”

Unlike L.A., the Oakland School Board in California voted to eliminate police from schools throughout their district on June 24.

It was a victory for a movement led by the Black Organizing Project that began in 2011 after an Oakland school police officer shot and killed 20-year-old Raheim Brown, who was sitting in a car near a high school during a school dance.

“The police in our schools don’t add educational value, it’s a punitive measure to criminalize youth.” said Amanda Seaton, a special education teacher at an Oakland Elementary school. “One of my first years teaching, the police were called on a first grade Black student, a young Black boy at a school I was working at that was majority Black. Basically the police were called on him to ‘teach him a lesson’ because he had too many tantrums in the mind of school leadership. I don’t think those are the kind of lessons we should be teaching any students and they’re often reserved for Black students.”

School boards in the cities of Minneapolis, Denver, Madison, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon also voted to remove police from school districts.

Law enforcement presence in schools began in the 1940s in response to youth-led racial justice movements emerging ahead of the civil rights era. In Oakland, a school police force was created in 1957 partly in response to Black migration to the city after World War II as schools began integrating.

“Policing creates a lot of stress for a lot of students. As a teacher my concern is those stress levels contribute to difficulties in learning,” said Ben Evans, a middle school science teacher in Seattle. “People outside of education don’t understand the impact of the structure and functioning of our schools that set kids up for the school to prison pipeline. It’s simple things like the strict behavior guidelines, trying to run a school like how a prison functions. The presence of the police in that system has a very strong impact in terms of that school to prison pipeline.”

Student led-organizations, teachers, and community groups are pressuring their local elected officials to do the same and remove police from schools in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, St. LouisTacoma, and several school districts in Maryland.

“There is a culture clash that happens when police are in schools,” said Maria Fernandez, senior campaign strategist with the Advancement Project, a non-profit based in Washington D.C. that has led a campaign for police-free schools over the past two decades. “Education and schools need to be a place of learning, developing, and nurturing of young people, and police are there to enforce criminal code, so there’s a fundamental contradiction to those things.”

The mayor-appointed school board of Chicago, Illinois, recently voted 4-3 in favor of delegating the decision to remove police from schools to local school councils. Currently, the city spends $33 million to fund police in Chicago schools.

A recent report conducted by #CopsOutCPS found over the past decade Black students have been targeted by school police in Chicago at four times the rate of white students, despite making up 35.9 percent of the student body.

The Chicago Teachers Union, along with student and community groups, are maintaining pressure on local officials, especially  because the school board is expected to vote on whether to renew the $33 million contract with the Chicago Police Department some time over the next two months. (The current contract expires at the end of August.)

“We’re not saying take them out and do nothing else. We’re saying stop spending on something that is harmful to students and spend it on what we know supports genuine community safety and harm reduction in our school buildings,” said Jenine Wehbeh, a teacher at Murphy Elementary School in Chicago. “We need to disinvest and defund police while funneling resources into self determination, well funded public schools, smaller class sizes, school nurses, restorative justice, counselors, and social workers.”

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato

Michael Sainato is a Freelance Journalist based in Gainesville, Florida. His writing has appeared in The Intercept, The Hill, The Guardian, Denver Post, Truth-Out, and several other publications. Follow him on Twitter @MSainat1