What is the alternative to police in schools?
The story of a white school police officer attacking a black student in South Carolina horrified and shocked people when it went public. Some had no idea that there were police in schools, while others thought that this use of force was extreme. The incident involved a high school student using a cell phone in class. When she was asked to put it away, she didn’t, and the teacher asked her to leave the room, a command that the student also refused. A school safety officer was called in and he attacked the girl when she would not get out of her chair. Since we have a video of the incident, we can see the physical attack on the student. It is a jaw-dropping assault on a black teen. There is no excuse for using this level of force on a young person who did not want to put away a cell phone.
However, despite the use of physical force, the situation actually shows weakness on the part of the teacher and the school. The teacher saw the student not obeying her rules as a signal of disrespect, and her response was to demonstrate the power of the school’s authority, and to put the student her place. This response, resorting to calling in school safety orders when students refuse to comply, demonstrates that the teacher had no relationship with the students in the classroom in the first place. Teachers resort to this behavior when they perceive they have no other alternative. By calling in the school police, the teacher admits that she has no connection with the student, that she is not interested in connecting with the student, and has no tools for connecting with students. Thus, in the end, the student will end with even less respect for the teacher than before the incident began.
What complicates this case is that it is a white police officer exerting power and authority over a young black person. Not only is this an echo of what happens outside the school building between police and youth of color, but it is an example of the disproportionately severe discipline that black students endure in schools every day, putting them often on the school-to-prison pipeline.
The school safety officer has been fired, but that will not address the problem. The presence of school safety officers, calling them in to address “infractions” by students, and then the use of extreme force is the problem. Schools need to reconsider how they work with students, and what their goal is with them. If the goal is to get students to understand their place in society and teach them obedience and deference to power, then the South Carolina school was doing exactly right. But, if the goal of the school is to educate the students and to prepare them for their adult lives, then students need to trust the teachers and teachers need to have relationship-building at the center of their work. If they have that as a central practice, then they will be dealing with these incidents in radically different ways. The teacher would have known and understood why the student wanted her phone out in class. They may have had some class agreements that they could refer to in a discussion. Also, the class could even engage in a restorative circle where the class discusses the incident and resolves the conflict as a class community.
Restorative practices are not new, but are an important component to how schools need to reimagine their work to improve the climate in them. The National School Climate Center suggests that schools attend to the social and emotional needs of students, and teach them the ethical and civic components of learning. They have a whole set of recommended practices and toolkits for school staffs.
Getting schools to use these practices involves a paradigm shift. A shift away from authoritarian practices in which hierarchies are adhered to and strict rules make the tiniest infraction a major event toward practices where there is structure but also care, healing, and restoration. The Dignity in Schools Campaign has worked diligently to campaign for this kind of paradigm shift and has had successes across the country, showing that there is an interest but the campaign continues because there is still resistance to making schools places that value all young people.