By Evan Serpick
We’ve all seen the viral video of a school police officer in South Carolina thrashing a student in the classroom. There are many things to take away from this disturbing – and hardly isolated – incident. In a Washington Post column, journalist and child advocate Stacey Patton (who spoke at OSI’s Talking About Race event on Media Bias and Black Communities earlier this month) talked about how African-American kids grow up in a “perpetual state of vulnerability to the brutality of racism.” Karen Houppert, the editor of the Baltimore City Paper and a longtime educator, implicates the teacher, the administration, and the absurd criminalization of misbehavior in schools (and cites OSI-Baltimore’s “decade-long fight against suspensions“).
Indeed, this student’s infractions – refusing to stop using her smart phone, then refusing to leave the classroom – occur in every school in America. I say this confidently as the father of two boys in a Baltimore City public elementary school and the husband of a teacher in a Baltimore City public high school. And although the cell phone is a recent development, infractions involving GameBoys, passed notes, or any number of things that teachers would prefer not be used in their classrooms, have existed since I went to a mostly white public high school in Baltimore County. They did not then and, in Baltimore County schools, would not now result in police intervention. But they did in South Carolina and they very well could in Baltimore City, the only one of Maryland’s 23 public school systems that has its own police force.
As juvenile public defender Jenny Egan pointed out in a powerful Baltimore Sun op-ed earlier this year, the presence of a school police force turns common schoolyard mischief into criminal behavior, and as a result, “Baltimore City… represents 90 percent of all school-based arrests statewide, even though Baltimore City only represents about 10 percent of the public school students in the state.”
“The vast majority of kids,” she adds, “were charged with low-level misdemeanors, and even these seem warped when viewed not in the schoolyard context from which they arose but rather through the lens of pathology and ‘broken windows’ criminal enforcement. Childish behavior and standard disobedience is charged as ‘willfully disturbing school activities.’ Snatching headphones off a classmate’s head at the bus stop becomes robbery. In the past year, I’ve had two clients arrested at school for allegedly stealing Pokemon cards.”
And incidents like the one now in the news are not unique to South Carolina. Earlier this year, a Baltimore City school police officer was indicted for assault after beating one female middle school student with a baton and pepper-spraying two others after one of them ignored her demand to stop running in the hallway (their ages were 11, 13, and 15). Meanwhile, there has been a strong push to get an exemption from state law to allow these officers to patrol the halls with guns.
As these incidents make painfully clear, armed police have no place in our classrooms.
In New York City, school safety officers are unarmed and work inside the school, building relationships with students and staff and becoming a calming presence. As a result, arrests at New York schools are less than half of those at Baltimore schools—not just as a percentage of students, but in terms of raw numbers, which is incredible when you consider that New York City schools have 10 times as many students.
When schools reinforce the negative aspects of our students’ lives with armed school police, draconian discipline, and few supportive resources, we’re training our students for the status quo, a continuation of the school-to-prison pipeline. We’re telling our kids that their misbehavior is a criminal matter, that they should get accustomed to life within the criminal justice system, as that is where we expect them to end up.
On the other hand, studies show that a positive school climate, using alternative discipline and forging positive relationships increases attendance and improves students’ grades and test scores. Baltimore City now has 52 community schools, which are staffed with a site coordinator to help students and families address the many non-academic barriers to educational success they face, including housing, health care, violence prevention, and food assistance. Attendance, performance, and enrollment at these schools are on the upswing, while suspensions have dropped.
This painful incident serves as another reminder that treating our children like criminals doesn’t serve them or society well. It’s long past time to get police out of our schools.