Law enforcement has had a brief yet abusive relationship with American public schools, spurring the terror of Black and Brown students and increased interaction with law enforcement at a young age. The rationale behind police in schools has always been for the “safety” of children. Yet, since police have shown up, the school to prison pipeline has strengthened, putting young children into the legal system and criminalizing their oftentimes normal behavior.
In resistance, youth and student organizers have taken to school board meetings and the streets to fight for the removal of police from schools in line with the national call to defund the police after the death of George Floyd and the subsequent uprisings.
Many youth and student organizers have been protesting against police in their schools for over a decade. Denilson Garibo, a student director on the Oakland Unified School District board and a graduating senior at Oakland High School, in Oakland, California, has been protesting for the removal of police in his school for almost two years.
Right before the school board’s vote on eliminating Oakland police from schools in March 2019, Garibo spoke at board meetings about the violence of Oakland police at Oakland High and the danger they pose to Black and Brown students. The Oakland school board still voted to keep Oakland police in their schools.
“It’s millions of dollars spent on police,” Garibo said. “We’re having assistant principals being cut [from] our schools. Our teachers are not getting enough money for what they do. Why are we prioritizing school police over our education?”
According to the Urban Institute, 67 percent of high school students, 45 percent of middle school students, and 19 percent of elementary school students go to a school that is staffed with at least one police officer. They also found that Black and Latinx students had a higher rate of attending a school with at least one police officer.
Thanks to the School Resource Officer (SRO) program, which was implemented in the 1950s, police officers were granted a legal mandate to occupy schools disguised as security, building an intricate relationship between local police departments, local schools and local government. Yet this policing model only employed cops at one percent of schools in the United States when it first started. However, it served as a model for future engagement—monetary and legally—between police and schools.
After the Columbine school shooting in Colorado, in 1999, police presence increased in almost every school, using the traumatic event as a means to further law enforcement’s involvement in school security. But even with the increased police presence, school shootings have not gone down. According to the Washington Post, 249 schools have had shootings since Columbine, impacting over 240,000 students and leaving at least 147 people dead and 310 people injured. And 2018 saw the highest number of school shootings since 1999 with 25 school shootings that year.
School police budgets increased even more after the 2012 Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting that killed 20 first graders. A Freedom to Thrive Report done by The Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives and the Black Youth Project found that police departments have consistently received more discretionary funds from their cities, increasing their budgets from 2017 to 2020. Large cities such as Los Angeles, New York City and Chicago have police budgets over $1 billion, with New York City being the largest at over $5 billion.
The increased presence of police officers at schools has led to children being handed over to the justice system for harsh discipline, with Black students arrested at a rate three times higher than white students. A 2010 study done by researchers at Villanova University found that schools with more Black students tend to have higher rates of suspensions. According to a 2018 report by the U.S Government Accountability Office (GAO), zero-tolerance policies—measures that apply harsh discipline to students who are considered violent—are applied most to Black students and students with disabilities.
Jael Kerandi, a 21-year-old former student body president at the University of Minnesota, experienced violent interaction with Minneapolis police in the spring semester of 2018 after police were called to a Somali Student Association event she attended.
“[We] definitely experienced a lot of aggression, force and just overall a very unpleasant situation with the police,” Kerandi said of “Somali Night,” a night where Somali students and others get together to showcase Somali culture. “There were definitely other police called in. The Minneapolis police were there. There were police from other cities. Where it ended up was many more police, and I definitely remember there being a helicopter at some point.”
Kerandi pushed multiple times for university administration to end its contract with Minneapolis police. Kerandi wrote a report to the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents which included a demand to discuss the relationship that Minneapolis police presence has on Black and Brown students on campus. However, Kerandi did not receive a response from them.
“If you cannot find value in this conversation, then I truly do question which student are you placing as priority,” Kerandi said. “If that is the case, then as universities and institutions, you no longer get to say we value diversity [and] inclusion. You no longer get to say we don’t hold values in racial discrimination. You no longer get to say that we care about all our students.”
After George Floyd’s death, the uprisings that followed, and the lack of cooperation from university administration, Kerandi wrote a letter demanding the university president remove Minneapolis police from campus without discussion, stating in an open letter that “there is no middle ground.” In response, the University of Minnesota agreed to cut ties with Minneapolis police.
“It set precedent. It sent a message to Black and Brown students that we were taking this seriously,” Kerandi said. “Is that everything? Absolutely not, but it’s more than we’ve ever gotten.”
Recently, Garibo joined forces with Black Organizing Project (BOP) to continue fighting for removing Oakland police from schools. This time, Garibo organized for the George Floyd Resolution, a demand for the Oakland school board to end its contract with Oakland police. The school board voted on June 24 to remove Oakland police from its school campuses.
“It took pressure and it took the community. We emailed the board members. We sent out flyers. We had a 10-day action. There were protests. Protests, walking to their houses, to the board members’ houses,” Garibo said.
“It took a lot of work and many people think [eliminating school police] is the board members’ work. No, this is all BOP’s work and the community.”
Other schools are removing police from their campuses due to pressure from youth and student organizers. Milwaukee schools terminated their contract with the Milwaukee Police Department thanks to continuous protests from students. Portland Public Schools followed suit and removed School Resource Officers from its schools. The Los Angeles school board divested $25 million from its police budget.
There’s still a long way to go and some school districts aren’t backing down. Chicago schools voted to turn down The Police Free Schools Ordinance, a resolution issued by youth and student organizers for Chicago Public Schools to terminate its $33 million contract with Chicago police. Many other schools haven’t given their responses to student demands.
Kerandi believes it will happen as long as the pressure continues.
“It’s a matter of holding your administrators accountable. We have to ensure that anything that is done is not done performatively and if [they] are going to put out these statements [and] going to put out policy that has been signed stating a certain viewpoint in value, we have to hold [them] accountable.”
For Garibo, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. “Sometimes you need to take losses before that big win and it’s okay. It’s just all about being strategic. It’s all about working together with the community and not losing that hope. It’s a long process but you just don’t give up.”