The Myth of Police-Free Schools
Updated: Feb 13
Since the transformative, anti-racist uprisings of summer 2020 in response to the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, we have seen growing calls to “defund the police” and even “abolish” the police. And, although actions like these may seem monumental, organizers on the ground have a variety of specific, tangible policy changes to accomplish these visionary demands. One of them, which national and grassroots youth justice organizations have united around, involves removing police officers from the predominantly Black and Brown classrooms where they have been placed as “School Resources Officers”, or SROs.
Photo by @camerajessus on Instagram
from 2020 Black Lives Matter march led by youth
The Minneapolis Public School District later made headlines when they ended their contract with the Minneapolis police department - specifically citing the killing of George Floyd as one of their reasons. However, they quickly and quietly began a hiring process for “security” that included retired police and others with close ties to the department.
Don’t get me wrong, these are huge wins even with the “two steps forward one step back,” and I fully support the goals of Police-Free Schools campaigns. But, there are lessons for us in the fallout since protests have ebbed and the media has moved on: Even our clearest demands have loopholes for a system built on racism and colonialism. Minneapolis Public Schools reaped national positive press from their contract termination with a racist police system - and then continued depending on that same system. In fact, there is no way to maintain our current schooling system, which relies on coercion and the threat of force, without eventually calling on the police.
Ashley, a former member of DAYUM, once said it perfectly: “I hate when people call school my ‘academic career.’ I hate that term. If I don’t go to school they’ll arrest my parents. Don’t call that my career!” This threat of force is present in every school day from attendance forms, to raising your hand to go to the bathroom, to uniform and dress code policies, to turning in your phone at the door. Students are constantly aware of and navigating this threat, which acts more harshly on Black and Brown students, queer students, disabled students, and anyone else who doesn’t fit within the hegemonic norm, whether police are present or not.
Schools are even built to make surveillance easy
and to minimize personal space and agency.
In a recent meeting with a Detroit Public Schools board member, we were told that she had “changed her mind” about removing police from Detroit schools. Detroit’s public school district is the largest in the state, and serves a majority Black student population. They’re also one of only a handful of districts in the country to have their own police department, separate from the city’s police force, which costs us millions of dollars a year. The board member went on to tell us that she’d decided she would rather have police who were “specially trained to respond to students,” (She didn't say what kind of training they received) than the city police force.
What this council member was indirectly admitting, is that schools can only exist with the pre-assumed condition that police will need to be called eventually - especially in cities like Detroit. Before the kids have even done anything wrong, we need to have a force ready to respond to their assumed crime — a crime that usually comes in the form of tardiness or uniform violation.
Police abolitionists have been saying for decades that you don’t have to have uniformed officers physically present for the system of policing to be acting on a space. For example, think about how many things young people are forced to do on a daily basis without their consent or input. When we remove police from classrooms, someone else (teachers, administrators, social workers) will simply do the “policing,” knowing they can rely on the police state to enforce those demands if needed.
"Think about how many things young people are forced to do on a daily basis without their consent or input."
Another approach to prison and police abolition is giving authorities fewer opportunities to interact with, reprimand, or discipline. The fights to legalize marijuana, end cash bail, and create mental health alternatives to police all come from this branch of abolition. We can apply this to schools by fighting, not just to get cops out of schools, but for fewer rules in general. This could include ending punitive policies in regard to tardiness and clothing choice, longer break times between classes, not restricting food or bathroom access, and student-led restorative circles in lieu of suspensions.
These may seem like extreme, even impossible, suggestions. And it’s true that if we are going to abolish police in any meaningful way, we also have to abolish schools. If we don’t include this understanding in our campaigns for “police-free schools,” districts will do exactly what Minneapolis did — follow the letter, but not the spirit, of our demand. Schools will be able to claim to be progressive and anti-racist to the cameras while punishing and violating students in the background - something any Detroit public school student is keenly aware of. When our calls for police-free schools overlook this structural violence, we actually make the work of policing and criminalizing students easier, not harder.