Activists around the country have intensified calls for police-free schools following the Minneapolis Board of Education’s decision on June 2 to terminate its contract with the city’s police department. The school board’s announcement came in the midst of the nationwide protests in response to the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The move was celebrated widely on social media, with organizers pointing to the victory as a model for other school districts to follow.
45% of American schools report having “school resource officers” nationwide, and there are 52,000 of them nationwide, according to Education Week. Incidents of police brutality for minor offenses like refusing to get up from a desk or using phones in class have sparked outrage in recent years, but institutional reform has been slow. Law enforcement’s presence on school campuses increases the likelihood of student arrests and facilitates a school-to-prison pipeline, with particularly disastrous consequences for Black students. It also drains hundreds of millions of dollars from school budgets across the country. Though the movement to decarcerate schools is decades old, efforts to end relationships with police departments have grown in force in recent years. Now, that movement is gaining new urgency.
There is a visible ripple effect taking place. The hashtag #PoliceFreeSchools has been trending on social media, with a number of activists, organizations, students and educators demanding that their cities follow Minneapolis’ lead. And national groups like the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) and Scholars for Black Lives have launched campaigns to get schools, colleges and universities to cut ties with the police. “Now more than ever, as we envision anew schools, colleges, and universities in what will follow the Covid-19 pandemic, we believe the discontinuation of contractual relationships between local police organizations and educational institutions is a moral imperative,” an open letter on Wednesday from Scholars For Black Lives said.
But the real action has been on the local level. Ahead of the Minneapolis vote, school board member Josh Pauly told the Huffington Post that school district representatives in “Arizona, North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, New York and Illinois” reached out to ask for support on drafting similar proposals. This is already yielding results; on Thursday, for instance, the superintendent of the Portland, Ore., public schools announced that he was “discontinuing the regular presence of school resource officers,” adding, “we need to re-examine our relationship with the [Portland Police Bureau].”
Activists want to make sure this momentum continues. Shortly after Minneapolis’ decision, the Urban Youth Collaborative, a youth organization that has been working on ending the school-to-prison pipeline in New York for over a decade, called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to follow Minneapolis’ lead. “Now is the time for New York City to take the same action, along with other schools around the country,” the group said in a press statement. Over the past four days, IntegrateNYC, a youth group working to integrate New York City classrooms, has collected 16,000 signatures in a petition calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York City Board of Education to defund the police and remove them from public schools.
Similar drives have been launched in Phoenix, Seattle and Oakland, while members of the Denver school board and the superintendent of the Denver Public Schools announced on Tuesday that they would begin a critical conversation around schools and police.
In addition, the Chicago Teachers Union, students, and a number of community organizations started a campaign on Wednesday demanding that the Board of Education and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) end its $33 million-a-year contract with the Chicago Police Department and reinvest in school resources. (The contract was approved in 2019; in comparison, the overall 2019 CPS budget allocated $2.5 million to hire 30 school nurses and $3.5 million to hire 35 social workers in a school district that serves over 355,000 students, making it the third-largest in the United States.)
Pointing to the precedent Minneapolis just set, the coalition wrote, “What we’re asking for is not just reasonable and responsible, but entirely possible.” The campaign has been endorsed by a number of organizations including Students Strike Back, Assata’s Daughters and the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.
Derrianna Ford, 16, spoke in front of the Chicago Board of Education in the summer of 2019 to oppose the police contract but said students’ concerns weren’t heard. “We were calling on this money to be spent on nurses because we are so understaffed. We were asking for counselors,” she said in an interview this week.
Derrianna, who just finished her junior year at Mather High School in Chicago’s North Side, said her school is overcrowded and under-resourced, with one nurse coming in on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to serve nearly 1,500 students. “I’m going into senior year next year and I’ve never met my counselor. Never,” she said.
Derrianna described an environment of fear among the student body when it comes to “school resource officers,” whom, she said, teachers will call upon to handle minor transgressions like students refusing to do their work or putting their heads on their desks.“It’s like [teachers] use them as a weapon or something,” she said.
Derrianna started organizing with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), a youth-led organizing alliance for education and racial justice, about two years ago, though the group has been organizing to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline in Chicago schools for much longer.
“VOYCE has been working on this from the start and we are not quite where [Minneapolis is] at, but we will keep pushing and keep fighting until we’re there,” Derrianna said. She’s been out protesting peacefully every day and mentioned that VOYCE is continuing to organize around safe learning environments. The Minneapolis school board’s decision, she believes, has put more pressure on Chicago Public Schools to consider students’ demand to rid the city’s campuses of its police presence in the future. “Minneapolis really showed that it’s possible. All we have to do is keep fighting,” she said. “They see it coming.”
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Indigo Olivier is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic and a 2020-2021 Leonard C. Goodman investigative reporting fellow. Her writing on politics, labor and higher education has appeared in the Guardian, The Nation and Jacobin, among other outlets.