This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A new report from a coalition of student organizations documents school policing models around the country, examines the practice’s history, and offers contemporary case studies of violence inflicted by school police and students’ power to fight for change.
Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Student Union feature prominently in the report, which calls for the removal of school police and for increased investment in support services like counselors.
Currently, 1.6 million U.S. public school students attend a school with a police officer but not a counselor, according to data from the federal Department of Education.
The report ties this history to government policies such as the federal “war on drugs.” It refers to a 1994 quote from John Ehrlichman, Richard Nixon’s domestic policy chief, about the real reason for that administration’s war on drugs:
We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
The report was assembled by the Advancement Project – a national organization run by a team of civil rights lawyers who seek to end the school-to-prison pipeline. The organization includes the Alliance for Education Justice, a network of 30 youth-led organizing groups founded in 2008 that includes the Philadelphia Student Union.
“Students regularly interact with metal detectors, school resource officers, handcuffs, sweeps, and drug sniffing dogs as part of their school day,” the report reads. “The presence of police in schools also conditions students of color to accept the constant presence of police as part of their everyday existence. Placing officers in school makes them agents of socialization, teaching impressionable Black and Brown children that compliance is of utmost importance.”
The report examines the history of school police, looking back at the establishment of the first school police forces in the 1940s. This led to the creation of the first school resource officers in Flint, Michigan, in 1953, which received positive press and quickly spread to cities throughout the country. These forces initially enforced the status quo of the Jim Crow era. After the civil rights movement, their role changed.
In 1967, 3,500 Philadelphia students walked out of school and marched to the Board of Education building, demanding black history courses, more black educators, and the freedom to express their culture. Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo sent 100 police officers in riot gear to confront the protesting students. Hundreds of students were beaten; 22 people were seriously injured and 57 arrested.
“The expansion and increased reliance on school policing coincides with the state’s desire to suppress growing social movements against inequality,” the report reads. “Schools were often an epicenter of the fight for racial justice. Attempts to dismantle systematic discrimination, like student protests, were often responded to with displays of police power intended to suppress and delegitimize the movement.”
By 1972, urban school districts in 40 states had some form of school police —at the same time that Nixon was ramping up his war on drugs.
“The War on Drugs was more accurately described by Nixon’s aide as a war to criminalize anti-war activists and Black people,” the report reads. “School suspensions also started to increase exponentially during this time period. In the 1990s, communities experienced the proliferation of school policing as a coordinated strategy between the federal government, local municipalities and school districts to control black and brown youth under the guise of public safety.”
The report highlights 1994 as a key moment in federal policy — the year that President Bill Clinton passed his Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, dramatically increasing federal funding for school police.
“The increased presence and militarization of schools has led to a rise in school-based arrests and to black students being arrested at more than twice the rate of White students,” the report reads. “If this history teaches us anything, it is that the presence of police in schools serving primarily students of color reflect a continued effort to control and criminalize Black and Brown youth and deny their opportunity to learn in safe, supportive schools.”
The report also includes case studies of contemporary incidents of police violence in schools and the work that student organizers are doing to fight back. One of these case studies focuses on Philadelphia Student Union.
After PSU member Brian Burney was assaulted by a school police officer at Benjamin Franklin High School and his family filed a complaint, the student group organized a series of rallies outside School District headquarters calling for an end to school police and increased investment in services such as counselors. The campaign is ongoing, but it has already won tangible victories such as a student complaint system for these incidents.
“Our vision for how we want young people to interact within the school environment is really looking at how do we shift what the power dynamics are between the school, the administrators, and students,” Julien Terrell, PSU’s executive director, said in the report.
It also quotes Burney, the student who was assaulted at Franklin. Burney has bladder problems, but was told by the officer that he still could not enter the locked bathroom.
“I really had to go bad,” Burney said. “We had words. I threw an orange at the wall out of frustration because I really had to go to the bathroom. I felt like Eric Garner because I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was going to die that day.”