What Are Police Doing In American Schools?

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“Gangs and drugs have taken over our streets and undermined our schools.”

President Bill Clinton justifies signing the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994

“I signed a bill that made the problem worse.”

Former President Bill Clinton expressing regret in 2016

The principal of my elementary school was named, George. If ever there was someone who should not have been supervising young children it was George. He had an aptitude for yelling, intimidating and traumatizing that, I believe, would have made him a much better drill sergeant. I don’t blame George for wanting to succeed in his chosen profession, I just can’t imagine who thought it was a good idea to make him principal of an elementary school.

The integration of law enforcement in educational institutions is the topic I’m discussing with people who have seen the consequences of such policies first hand.

* Steven Pacheco is the Vice President of Student Council at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

* Rafael L. Carrera is a member of the Campaign to Close Rikers led by Just Leadership USA.

* Jessica Hall is the Executive Director of Prison Writes.

Robert: What is the “school-to-prison pipeline?”

Steven: The school-to-prison pipeline is policymakers creating policies that target under-resourced schools in socioeconomically-disadvantaged communities, such as placing police officers in a school setting or "zero-tolerance remedies." Students, who are deemed "problematic" or "troubled" by educators—who themselves often lack cultural competency and sometimes empathy—are met with severe punishment by removal from the normal classroom environment via suspension or expulsion as an attempt to "correct" their behavior. Essentially, students are being further disadvantaged, punished and prepared for a life of confinement, restriction, and ostracism.

Rafael: It’s a plague in our schools where children are funneled (mainly, Black and Latino children) out of school and into the juvenile and criminal Justice system. Many of these students have learning disabilities, come from low-income families and are labeled as abused and/or neglected children. Experts believe that many of these children would have benefited greatly from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are incarcerated; sent to waste away. I can personally attest to what it’s like. I dropped out of school when I was fourteen-years-old after being expelled my first week at Roosevelt High School in the Bronx. I was then sent to a high school in Manhattan. I only went to that school once because the first thing I noticed about the school was the bars on the window. Up to that point, no school I ever went to had windows like this one, not to mention that, before reaching my class, I had to pass through three metals detectors. When I turned sixteen-years-old, I started being sent to Rikers Island. Looking back on it now, I see that the school in Manhattan was preparing me for Rikers island at C74. I shit you not. That was Manhattan, New York in the late 90s. I went from a star pupil to delinquent overnight and nobody, not even my own family, questioned my transformation.

Jessica: It is urgent that we get police and 'safety' officers out of our schools. Schools should be a sanctuary for our children. I experienced first hand the bullying and threatening behavior of school police, as a parent of NYC public school students and as a social worker in a high school in the South Bronx. There is absolutely no legitimate reason to have these officers in schools. Paramilitary forces (which is exactly what they are) are not a replacement for education, sports and arts. Students who are engaged do not need to be controlled.

When I worked at a school in the South Bronx, I had an officer follow one of my students into my office, where she was fleeing from his harassment. She sat in my office and he stood over her threateningly and said he was going to arrest her. "For what?" I asked. "Attitude," he said. Yes, apparently black girls can be arrested for attitude.

I kicked him out of my office and the girl stayed. Unfortunately, there were so many other times that my students were arrested while in school when I couldn't intervene. It was not at all unusual for me to see a student being escorted out of school in hand-cuffs. That is just one of many stories of bullying and abuse by grown people in uniforms who are paid by taxpayers to patrol our schools and channel vulnerable and marginalized youth into the prison pipeline.

Robert: How did the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon begin?

Steven: The school-to-prison pipeline began as an extension of the war on drugs in the 80s. As the crack-cocaine epidemic took shape in the ghettos of America, naturally, drugs started to show-up in schools from these respective communities. Instead of using a harm reduction approach for this issue, like you see employed in many suburbs currently experiencing an opioid epidemic, students were criminalized for falling victim to a deteriorating society.

Rafael: Many people believe it began after the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre, when zero-tolerance policies began to take form. Others seem to believe that educators are to blame because teachers were forcing out those who scored low on tests in order to raise their graduation rates. But personally, I feel it started when teachers and police officers began working together to discipline students for minor infractions, when schools started to mirror law enforcement models and when teachers started to view their students as dispensable instead of reachable. When a little boy gets arrested for simply walking out of the principal’s office, slamming the door, walking to his class and taking his seat, then, by George, “I think we got a problem.”:

Robert: Do those that get pulled into the pipeline have the same educational opportunities as their peers?

Steven: Absolutely not. I can attest to this based on my position compared to many of my former classmates. While some of my friends who struggled through grade school are either dead, incarcerated or unemployed, I am living a life full of opportunity and promise largely because I was able to make it into a university following my high school graduation. I rarely spent time in detention and, the few times I went to detention, I realized those same students were usually placed in the low-performance classes in the school. This pipeline needs attention in higher-education as well. Black men have a low retention rate if they are fortunate enough to start a college career. Then, there are all sorts of exclusive programs different colleges and universities host that are rarely indicative of the diversity within their institution. If we look at the more prestigious higher-education institutions you will see a lack of diversity in general. These are not coincidental, these are patterns.

Rafael: No! I don’t believe those students (children really) have the same educational opportunities as their peers. I had first-hand experience of the educational opportunities offered in New York City, New York State and in Connecticut prison systems. I can tell you they really are non-existent. But, officials are ever so quick, to hand out drug and anger management classes like those certificates are better than a real education. Don’t get me wrong, there are teachers, officers and volunteers who go above and beyond the description of their job duties to ensure that this fundamental right for an education isn’t ignored.

“We need to address societal issues head on if we really want students and teachers learning and working in safe environments.”

Robert: Setting aside the discipline policies, like zero-tolerance, let’s talk about safety measures such as metal detectors and officers in schools. We all know that guns have become more and more available in the last several decades. Is it wrong for teachers to want to work in a safe environment? Don’t students want to learn in a safe environment?

Jessica: It's the responsibility of adults to create a safe learning environment by creating a culture of mutual support and respect. As more guns do not equal less gun violence, paramilitary forces do not make schools safer. In fact, they make them less safe by channeling youth into prisons. How is that safe for our young people?

Rafael: It’s clearly a matter of grave importance that a teacher should feel safe in their work environment, as well as students in their learning environment. So it’s justifiable to use such safety measures like metal detectors and more officers on school grounds. But, when little 13-year-old boys and girls are arrested on school grounds for farting, burping, wearing perfume, having ibuprofen and bringing into class a home made clock, there’s a problem. Now, it’s time to question whether or not these teachers want to do their jobs or if they ‘re just looking for a reason to use law enforcement discipline as a tactic to scare the other students into following they rules with less resistance because of fear. Didn’t those teachers know that those students who get arrested at school will feel alienated from their peers and altogether discourage them from attending class? As teachers, their safety is a concern, but when they cry wolf, why is it our sons, daughters, nieces or nephews that pay the price?

Steven: I think your question is a bit of an oxymoron, Robert. These students often live in neighborhoods and circumstances that are as opposite to safe as black is to white, and the teachers usually teach in a neighborhood that is anything but safe – do we really think that metal detectors and officers in the school setting will make any of us safer? If that was the answer then America might have never experienced mass incarceration, assuming mass incarceration was actually about public safety. To be more explicit, we need to address societal issues head on if we really want students and teachers learning and working in safe environments. Although my school had metal detectors, students were still able to bring guns and other weapons into the school on occasion. The true issue is the fact that students feel they need to carry a firearm or a weapon in order to feel safe, even in an educational setting. As long as there is a ghetto or a slum, there's nothing an educational institution can do to excuse itself from the type of violent incidents that take place in these particular schools. We need to invest in our most disadvantaged communities with all sorts of capital -- not just financially.

Robert: Let’s go back to race. How much of a role does race play in the advent of the school-to-prison pipeline?

Rafael: I believe that race plays a major role. I’m a 33-year-old Hispanic male, living in the Bronx, who holds a criminal record. I know that almost 89 percent of the men, women and children on Riker’s Island are Black and Hispanic, according to the City of New York Department of Corrections website. After zero-tolerance policies sprouted in our school systems, the suspension and drop out rates on Black and Hispanic students drastically increased nationwide. And, with no education, where do you think these individuals went?

Steven: We cannot have this discussion, or any discussion, in America without involving the dynamic of race. Even more, we have to look at the intersection of gender, as well. In her book, Pushout, Dr. Monique W. Morris mentions how Black girls make up 16% of female students, yet over a third of that same population with school-related arrests. In 2012, Suspension Stories released an info-graphic which revealed that Black and Latino students made up 70% of "in-school" arrests. I can only imagine what those numbers look like today. So, to answer your question, yes, race has everything to do with the school-to-prison pipeline.

Robert: Law enforcement officers and educators serve our communities well. When policymakers decide that “law and order” means placing officers in schools, however, it changes the dynamics of education especially in those places where resources are scarce and where policing tactics are most visible and aggressive. I believe we need to start discussions with our representatives immediately about eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline. Thanks to Jessica, Rafael and Steven.

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