Policing school policing

Yesterday, a video of a "school resource officer" brutally attacking a peaceful, seated child in a South Carolina high school spread all over the internet.  Responses have, rightly, condemned the horrifying, racist, terrorism that White officer Ben Fields so easily deployed against a Black student.

All of this is deserved.  Officer Fields should be terminated with prejudice, and potentially charged with a crime.  

But what surprised me yesterday was that so many people seemed to be surprised that physically violent policing existed in schools at all.  This incident was horrendous.  But if the fact that there are school police roughing up Black, Brown, and Native kids across the country came as a surprise, then this is an issue that needs more attention in the movement to dramatically reform policing.

I spent four years working in the School District of Philadelphia and had the opportunity to work at both the school level and district level.  At the district level, I worked in the office responsible for overseeing the city's 52 high schools.  I've seen hundreds and probably thousands of interactions between school police and kids.  I haven't worked in Philly since 2011, so my memories are a few years old, but I don't think much has changed.

Unlike Columbia, SC, which euphemistically (Orwellianly) calls its force "school resource officers," in Philadelphia they're called what they are: school police officers.  As with any job in education, there are plenty of horrible school police officers, plenty of mediocre ones, and some really good ones too.  The good ones I got to know genuinely cared about the students they worked with, and the kids knew it.  Those officers often lived in the same neighborhood as their students, and built strong relationships with them as they worked to prevent trouble before it happened to keep students safe and truly be a part of their education.  I stumbled across the post from a couple years ago about a Philly school cop who spent his free time mentoring students in the school where he worked.

But there were also school cops who seemed to relish exerting physical force on children.  There were always whispers that many of these officers either couldn't get hired by or had been fired from city police forces and wound up at the school district.  Unsurprisingly, these hostile officers were disproportionately male and disproportionately White in schools that were comprised almost entirely of students of color.  I remember one White, male officer who wore a tie clip that was a pair of handcuffs as he prowled the hallways.  Imagine the message that sends to students (my boss made him take it off).

The school police operated much like a traditional police force, complete with a formal command structure of officers, sergeants, and lieutenants.  Officers looked like cops.  They wore dark blue uniforms and carried walkie-talkies and handcuffs in their belts.  Sometimes, they looked even more militarized than a typical beat cop.  In addition to their handcuffs and gear, some wore protective utility vests throughout the day, like the officer below.  

If you're a student coming to school, and the school police officer feels so unsafe they feel a need for a vest, how are you supposed to feel?

And there were even special tactical units that would be deployed to "hot spot" schools.  Members of those units wore vests, military-style cargo pants full of gear like zip-tie cuffs, and big jack boots.  They looked ready to kick down a door.

Students would have many encounters with school police throughout the day.  In high schools, this would begin with officers who met students at the door to bring them through metal detectors and send their backpacks through x-racy machines, and continue with officers stationed throughout the hallways during the day (and monitoring cameras in an office).

This is what school is like for lots of students of color.  The physical policing of their bodies does not end at the school door.  Indeed it is often intensified there.  And, as in Columbia, the school police were frequently deployed to use physical force to respond to nonviolent situations that were a result of a teacher's failure to foster a strong classroom culture and build relationships with their students.  Many people were shocked a teacher would call an officer to respond to basic high school-kid defiance.  I wasn't.  This happens ever single day at schools across the country.

The fault for this state of affairs does not rest solely with school police forces.  Indeed, schools only get to a point where a militarized tactical response seems reasonable as a result of systematically racist and individually incompetent oversight of those schools by the adults responsible for leading them, all the way up to the highest levels.

What happened to that child at Spring Valley High was awful.  And the extent to which it came as a surprise is a signal that an even greater effort needs to be made to illuminate the physically terrifying conditions under which so many students of color go to school every day.