THE MURDER of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer reflects a broader, deep-seated racism that infiltrates all levels of our society, including our schools. The racist notions of superiority, dominance, and control which led the white police officer to feel justified in kneeling on the neck of a black man long enough to suffocate him, are the same racist underpinnings which lead school police officers to place handcuffs on the wrists of black children in school.
Following the Columbine High School shooting of 1999 in Littleton, Colorado, thousands of police officers were deployed in schools across the country in the name of student safety. Although Littleton was a predominately white community, and the shooters were white males, the incident prompted years of harmful policing practices in schools made up of predominantly students of color. Since the Columbine shooting, hundreds of thousands of black and Hispanic children across the country have been arrested for relatively minor disciplinary issues. In Massachusetts, for example, a 14-year-old student was arrested for bouncing a basketball in the hallway and slamming a door shut and an 11-year-old student was arrested for running out of the school building and throwing a snowball that hit a teacher’s leg.
Today, across the country, 70 percent of students involved in in-school arrests or referred to law enforcement are black or Latinx. In Massachusetts, although black students make up only 9 percent of the student body statewide, 18 percent of the students who are arrested are black. And in Boston, a report found that black students made up one-third of the student body but nearly two-thirds of arrests.
These arrests occur within a broader context in which black and Latinx students, particularly those with disabilities, are more likely to be suspended, expelled, referred to law enforcement, separated in self-contained classrooms or segregated schools. They are also more like to be punished through forceful physical restraint. Many of these practices occur in schools with metal detectors, surveillance cameras, random contraband searches, locked gates, and security guards. Taken together, these measures create a school culture that is reminiscent of a prison in which black and Latinx children are criminalized for normal childhood behavior, and under constant surveillance.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, school boards in Minneapolis; Denver; Milwaukee; Portland, Oregon; Oakland; and Portland, Maine, have voted to remove police officers from schools. Similar local movements are gaining ground in cities across the country, including Boston, Springfield, Framingham, and other communities in Massachusetts. A policing reform bill has also been introduced in the Massachusetts Legislature which includes a section removing the requirement that police officers be assigned to schools. The legislation currently sits in a conference committee charged with merging the House and Senate versions.
It is urgent that our schools institute bold and dramatic changes to counter practices built upon and perpetuating racism. Today in schools across Massachusetts and the country, black children internalize daily messages that they are bad, defiant, oppositional, and criminal. Removing police officers from schools is a first step toward countering these messages, confronting racism, and teaching every black child, in every interaction – your life matters. Your family members’ lives matter. Your education matters. Your future matters.
Liza Hirsch is a senior attorney with Massachusetts Advocates for Children.