Why Are Cops in Schools?

15359261580_eb2ede9016_barrestWhile we express outrage around the girl slammed from her desk in South Carolina, an even worse situation happened right here in Oakland. In case you missed it a handcuffed, disabled young man was dumped from his wheelchair and pummeled by a “school security officer”.  You can watch the video here.

Thankfully it was on video, and the officer was convicted of a crime, but as someone who has worked with children for 20 plus years I can unequivocally tell you—we don’t need cops in schools.  And believe me, cops aren’t everywhere—they are only in certain schools, and they tend to arrest certain kids—starting the pipeline flowing from schools to prisons.

There are at least two things happening here, one, normal behaviors for students are increasingly criminalized for some students and, two, the training and mindset of police are often ill suited to an adolescent educational context.  Kids have always fought, stolen, vandalized, taken drugs/alcohol and engaged in a range of other stupid and/or dysfunctional behaviors.

But look at some the recent cases—not putting your phone away quickly enough in school is literally a crime justifying take down and arrest (South Carolina), bringing a clock to school will get you handcuffed (Ahmed the Clock Kid), being rude to a safety officer will get you assaulted (the Oakland case), even just creating a science experiment can get you a couple of felony charges and expulsion (Chemist Kiera).

I have worked in day treatment programs—for juvenile offenders—we didn’t have safety officers, and almost never called the cops.  In my day job, we support high schools that cater to dropouts—many of them being “the bad kids” you hear about.  We don’t have cops or call the cops.  And go to the suburbs—no cops—unless they are called on kids of color.

The one time I did call the cops I regretted it. And I was reminded how small decisions by administrators can have huge consequences.

Two students were holding a lighter under a ceiling tile in the bathroom, no major damage, but we found the culprits and one admitted it.  Because it was a district building that was damaged the police were called.

The other principal advised me that I should write it up as arson, which is a serious crime and will get you expelled.  It also may actually be charged as a crime.  These were 5th graders.  Two young cops come, and handcuff the kids, they sit them at the front of the school and start haranguing them.

One kid is just sobbing, the other is non-responsive.  He just sits there.  They dig in deeper, talking about how he is on a course to jail, trying to get him to respond. He still just sits there, won’t admit anything, and shows no emotion.

Then they dig in deeper, talking about detention, and how he thinks he’s tough, but he won’t be tough there, eventually implying that he would likely be physically and sexually assaulted in detention.  I should have stopped them, but I was kind of taken back and some weird (cowardly?) sense of deference within me held my tongue as they implemented their own version of “scared straight”.

And this is the second point; the orientation of police around criminal enforcement is just the wrong lens to bring to 99% of these situations.   Police are used to interrogating, imposing their will, and dealing with adults who, in a perfect world, are aware of, and can assert their rights.

These are kids who played with a lighter, one of them is obviously distraught and truly sorry, and more worryingly one of them is seemingly not phased at all.  This is nothing to him compared to other things he has experienced, which gives you a glimpse into what his life must be like.  He needs help.

But in many cases he would end up in juvenile detention, expelled from his school—and the entire district potentially– for arson.  In the end, we disciplined him for “putting others at risk” trying to focus on the potential harm that could have been done to the community.  But it could have gone a very different direction.  And the cops did not help.

So why are cops in schools?  Or more accurately, why are the cops in some schools?  If you look at where they are and where they aren’t, I think you can figure it out.

What do you think?

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