• Morgan Craven, J.D. • IDRA Newsletter • September 2020 •
The people peacefully protesting in support of Black lives are part of a movement demanding the most basic of human dignities. Many of those demands started in schools, where generations of students of color have been harshly punished and denied opportunities to learn and succeed.
Black students are more likely to be punished and arrested in school and to receive harsher punishments than their peers, even for the exact same behaviors. Black students are not more likely to misbehave (Skiba & Williams, 2014; Okonofua & Eberhardt, 2015; Fabelo, et al., 2011). But they are overrepresented in disciplinary actions and school-based arrests.
The Office for Civil Rights reports that in 2015-16 Black students only made up 15% of student enrollment but accounted for 31% of all school-related arrests and law enforcement referrals (2019).
Research by the Yale University Child Study Center shows these discipline disparities exist even in preschool where young Black children are twice as likely to be expelled as their white peers (Anderson, 2015; Gilliam, 2005).
This mistreatment impacts students for their entire lives. Discipline methods like corporal punishment, suspensions, expulsions, alternative school placements, and the use of police in schools result in lost classroom time and an increased likelihood of grade retention, higher dropout rates, and contact with the criminal justice system according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (2018).
Why does this “school-to-prison pipeline” happen? For the same reasons so many systemic inequities persist: discriminatory cultures and practices, enabled by bad policies that fail to address even the most obvious and egregious prejudices. Many adults in schools perceive Black students’ behavior, even when it is innocent or age-appropriate, as deserving of punishment, arrest and other unnecessary interventions. Some see Black children as older, less childlike, and more culpable than they actually are, a phenomenon known as adultification (Epstein, et al., 2017; Texas Appleseed & TCCR, 2017).
Police officers in schools do not create stronger, safer schools or prevent school violence. Studies show that police have a negative impact on perceptions of school safety and attendance, graduation and college enrollment rates, particularly for students of color.
Some assume the worst of Black students, even as they label similar behavior by other students as “normal,” “inquisitive,” and “creative.” These perceptions lead to harmful responses to students’ speech, actions, and bodies. Many laws and district policies codify these harmful responses.
Schools affirm and perpetuate deeply-rooted systemic prejudices when they suspend, paddle, and arrest students and punish Black students disproportionately. When Black teenagers are arrested in the halls of their schools for no reason, they and their fellow students are deeply impacted. When disparate punishment is sanctioned by schools – places with purported authority that are meant to ensure safety – it is no wonder that some students grow up to perpetrate atrocities or stand by silently and watch as they happen.
Those who cannot imagine schools without police need only look to the many school districts – like Minneapolis, Portland and Oakland – that have begun to dismantle their entrenched school policing systems. These districts have been pushed by students and families for years to stop harmful, overly-punitive approaches and to invest in mental health and other educational supports for students (Shockman, 2020).
Just this summer, communities in San Antonio and Austin pressed for similar measures. IDRA developed online tools, including a sample school board resolution as a resource and has cautioned the Texas legislature to shift its focus from policing to counseling.
That shift is an important step that every other school district should follow. We do not need police officers in school buildings, even to maintain safety. Police officers in schools do not create stronger, safer schools or prevent school violence. Studies show that police have a negative impact on perceptions of school safety and attendance, graduation and college enrollment rates, particularly for students of color (Barnum 2019; Advancement Project, 2017). And, policing and extreme surveillance systems are unnecessary costs when most school districts are struggling to manage budgets in a declining economy.
We must break down the discriminatory school discipline and policing system and build up excellent and equitable public schools for all students. We must have pipelines to college, to meaningful relationships, and to community-led engagement and policymaking. We must have culturally-relevant curricula taught by excellent and diverse teachers. And we must believe in the value of all young people and encourage them to explore what they want their world to look like and how to make it so.
Advancement Project. (2017). We Came to Learn: A Call to Action for Police-Free Schools. Washington, D.C.: Advancement Project.
Anderson, M.D. (December 7, 2015). Why Are So Many Preschoolers Getting Suspended?. The Atlantic.
Barnum, M. (February 14, 2019). New studies point to a big downside for schools bringing in more police, Chalkbeat.
Epstein, R., Blake, J.J., & González, T. (2017). Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girls’ Childhood. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality.
Fabelo, T., Thompson, M.D., Martha Plotkin, M., Carmichael, D., Marchbanks, M.P., & Booth, E.A. (July 2011). Breaking Schools’ Rules: A Statewide Study on How School Discipline Relates to Students’ Success and Juvenile Justice Involvement. New York: Council of State Governments Justice Center.
GAO. (March 2018). Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities, Report to Congressional Requesters. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Gilliam, W. (2005). Prekindergarteners Left Behind: Expulsion Rates in State Prekindergarten Systems. Yale University.
Office for Civil Rights. (2019). 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection – School Climate and Safety. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.
Okonofua, J., & Eberhardt, J.L. (2015). Two Strikes: Race and the Disciplining of Young Students, Psychological Science.
Shockman, E. (May 30, 2020). Minneapolis school board, teacher union call on district to cut ties with police, MPR News.
Skiba, R.J., & Williams, N.T. (March 2014). Are Black Kids Worse? Myths and Facts about Racial Differences in Behavior: A Summary of the Literature. Bloomington, Ind.: Equity Project at Indiana University.
Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children Report. (2017). Dangerous Discipline: How Texas Schools are Relying on Law Enforcement, Courts, and Juvenile Probation to Discipline Students. Austin, Texas: Texas Appleseed.
Morgan Craven, J.D., is IDRA’s national director of policy, advocacy and community engagement. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at email@example.com.
[©2020, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 2020 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]