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Amid mass mobilization to combat anti-Black racism, Black-led efforts to abolish police are gaining wider traction. These efforts require a radical reimagining of our institutions, including those that children interact with most often—schools.
American schools promote a vision of “meritocracy” where student success is attributed to academic achievement and ability. However, we know that this meritocratic ideal is a myth. In reality, people of color have been systematically excluded from educational opportunities and marginalized in academic spaces. Although schools reproduce inequality and trauma across generations, they also function as sites of resistance for historically-oppressed students. The recent uprisings in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black people by police have amplified decades-long efforts by Black students and activists to abolish school police. We must collectively follow these Black leaders to ensure that schools are redesigned to nurture their most vulnerable students.
Understanding school policing today requires tracing the American education system to its roots. The American education system was founded on white supremacist ideologies designed to exert control over Black and Indigenous people. Based on fears that Black literacy would threaten the system of slavery, white colonizers instituted laws forbidding enslaved Black people from learning to read or write. Educating enslaved people in schools was punishable by state-imposed physical violence. Nonetheless, enslaved Black people engaged in hidden practices to educate themselves. Moreover, from 1860 to 1978, the United States government forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes and sent them to boarding schools meant to promote assimilation into the dominant white culture and erase Native community practices. When Black, Indigenous, and other students of color were finally permitted to attend public schools, they were segregated from white students under law and by policies designed to perpetuate residential and school segregation. Policing students of color, particularly Black students, became an essential tool for maintaining control over marginalized groups and upholding school segregation.
Modern systems of school policing contribute to the ongoing criminalization of Black children and the persistence of the school-to-prison pipeline. The use of police in schools originated during the 1950s when white communities feared that Black children would disrupt newly-integrated schools. Subsequently, Black students were depicted as “dangerous delinquents” by the New York City Police Department. In Oakland, school policing was used to monitor and contain the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party. Increased police presence in schools, and racialized associations between Black students and delinquency, linked student behavior with the criminal justice system.
Today, the use of “school resource officers” is informed by these deeply rooted anti-Black policing practices. Federal funding for school police programs increased rapidly in the wake of tragic school shootings. It is estimated that 28% of schools now have a daily police presence, which is concentrated in schools serving primarily students of color. But this increased police presence has failed to make Black students safer. Instead, school resource officers have exacerbated school disciplinary measures targeting Black students. In addition to arresting Black students for non-violent offenses at disproportionate rates, school police inflict physical violence on Black students, including slamming students to the ground and punching them. These disturbing actions reinforce trauma experienced by Black children in schools.
Research confirms that Black students are disproportionately impacted by school policing and harsh disciplinary measures. Nationally, Black students lose 66 days of instruction due to suspensions compared to just 14 days for white students. Black girls are 4 times more likely to be arrested in schools than white girls. For Black children, this means being deprived of resources that are essential to student wellness, such mental health services. The presence of law enforcement creates a harmful school climate for students of color and decreases academic achievement. A recent synthesis of 12 studies found “no conclusive evidence that the presence of school-based law enforcement has a positive effect on students’ perceptions of safety in schools.”
Although schools reproduce systemic inequalities, Black student activists have consistently engaged in acts of resistance to promote more inclusive schools. Black student activists participated in sit-ins to desegregate lunch counters during the 1960s; organized boycotts and walk-outs of under-resourced and segregated schools; and recently took to the streets to protest lack of school funding. Black children and other children of color bring a wealth of cultural knowledge to schools, including a legacy of resistance to racism and the ability to navigate institutions that were not created for communities of color. Black organizers have also led the fight to abolish school police for decades. However, the needs of Black students have been largely ignored by those in power.
School districts across the country are just beginning to take seriously the decades-long efforts by Black activists to eliminate ties with police. In response to nationwide calls to end anti-Black racism and dismantle systems of racist policing, numerous school boards have considered proposals to defund police or terminate police contracts. After a decade of Black-led advocacy, the Oakland Unified school board voted unanimously to dismantle its district police department and adopt a resolution put forward by the Black Organizing Project. School districts in Minneapolis, Denver, Madison, Portland, and San Francisco have committed to police-free schools by ending contracts with local police departments.
But this work is only starting. Black-led organizations have set out a framework for reimagining school safety and reinvesting in trauma-informed student care. These reforms include:
- Reallocating funds that were previously used for police to fund student support services such as psychologists, restorative justice practitioners, and social workers;
- Instituting restorative justice programs with specialists trained in trauma-informed de-escalation approaches;
- Holding annual implicit bias and anti-racism trainings for all staff; and
- Ensuring a community-driven process involving families and community members, as well as school staff, in decision-making.
These principles are grounded in research conducted by Black scholars that promotes inclusive school cultures and culturally-responsive pedagogical practices. A positive school culture mitigates the effects of social trauma on student learning. Because the brain is guided by directives to minimize threats, culturally-responsive schools can create a nurturing environment where Black students feel safe and engage in more effective learning. Safe and supportive learning environments that prioritize the needs of all students, particularly the most vulnerable, can reduce persistent educational inequality.
Cutting ties with school police is politically safer than engaging in the systemic dismantling and abolition of all police. But identifying the harms of school police requires acknowledging the brutalization and oppression that Black people have endured at the hands of all police. Therefore, efforts to eliminate school police must be contextualized within broader Black-led movements to abolish all forms of racist policing. We must collectively follow the lead of Black voices to ensure lasting change in our schools and communities.
Learn more from and support: the Dignity in Schools Campaign, Critical Resistance, the Education for Liberation Network, and grassroots organizations in your communities.
Black Students Matter. Black Lives Matter.
 Grey Gundaker, Hidden Education Among African Americans During Slavery, 109 Teachers College Record 1591, (2007); see also Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave 47–53, (Harvard University Press 2009) (1845).
 Tara J. Yosso, Whose Culture has Capital? A Critical Race Theory Discussion of Community Cultural Wealth, 8 Race Ethnicity and Education 69, (2005).
 See, e.g., bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994); Tyrone C. Howard, Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools: Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Classrooms (2010); Gloria Ladson-Billings, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children (1994).
 Zaretta Hammond, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students 50, (2015).