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Stop the Abuse of Children in School: Expel the Police

Far more common than incidents of police brutality in schools are the everyday encounters with police that result in suspensions, expulsions and arrests that criminalize ordinary children.

Here’s an idea for the adults who oversee our public schools: Let’s stop beating up schoolchildren, pepper-spraying them, tossing them out of the classroom, and jailing them for doing the normal things kids do.

Instead, let’s expel the cops.

This is far from a radical idea. What’s radical is allowing officers to roam school corridors and arrest children for breaking minor rules – or letting them pepper-spray students for what a federal judge in our lawsuit in Birmingham, Alabama, recently called “backtalking” and “challenging authority.”

School boards and administrators across the country must open their eyes: The policy of delegating basic school discipline to the police – benignly known as “school resource officers” – has proven to be an unmitigated disaster, particularly for children of color.

The latest cell phone video – showing an officer knocking a black teenage girl backward out of her chair and dragging her across the classroom floor in Columbia, South Carolina – is just the latest exhibit in a growing mountain of evidence.

It’s not enough that the officer involved in the incident was fired – because this is not an isolated problem that can be fixed by rooting out a few poorly trained, racist or ill-tempered officers.

Rather, what we’re seeing are the predictable results of a much broader pattern of over-policing in society and, more specifically, in poor, African American communities. The physical abuse of children in school is just the tip of a very large iceberg that is freezing too many vulnerable children out of the opportunities they need and deserve.

Far more common than incidents of police brutality in schools are the everyday encounters with police that result in suspensions, expulsions and arrests that criminalize ordinary children.

The numbers are mind-boggling. In the 2011-12 school year, the latest for which statistics are available, school officials referred a whopping 260,000 students to law enforcement, and 92,000 were arrested. That same year, 3.45 million children – one out of 14 – were suspended from school, and another 130,000 were expelled.

Virtually all of the scholars who study this phenomenon have concluded that the militarization of schools, coupled with the advent of zero tolerance policies, has had a vastly disproportionate impact on children of color and those with disabilities. The results: more dropouts, more poverty, more incarceration, more alienation and despair. 

My colleagues and I at the Southern Poverty Law Center have represented hundreds of African-American children sucked into this school-to-prison pipeline and seen the heartbreaking consequences up close.

After we investigated the school district in Meridian, Mississippi, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit to stop what police were calling the “taxi service” from the school to the local lockup. The 2012 suit alleged that children were being punished “so arbitrarily and severely as to shock the conscience.”

In Louisiana, we’ve asked the Justice Department to intervene in our ongoing case against the Jefferson Parish school district. One black student there, an eighth-grader, spent six days locked up in juvenile detention for throwing Skittles candy at another student.

Another, a 10-year-old African-American girl with autism, ended up face down on the ground with an officer’s knee in her back and in handcuffs after having an outburst. Afterward, she asked her family members, “Why do they [police] hate me?

In Birmingham, a judge ruled earlier last month that police violated the constitutional rights of schoolchildren by using pepper-spray to deal with “normal” adolescent behavior.

These examples are not outliers. They’re routine. It’s no wonder that so many children, particularly in minority communities, grow up to distrust police.

School systems must do better. We need to return discipline to teachers and other school officials, and rely on police only on rare occasions. When teachers encounter serious misbehavior they’re not equipped to handle, schools should deploy counselors, mental health professionals, social workers and others who can solve behavioral problems – not police officers with guns, pepper spray and handcuffs.

Rather than sowing the seeds of distrust between police and communities of color that is likely to last a lifetime, schools should be teaching children to resolve conflict and be responsible citizens.

Some school districts are beginning to change. In Broward County, Florida, for example, administrators have instituted new disciplinary procedures that limit the role of police, and they have seen large decreases in arrests, suspensions and expulsions.

How many more students will we allow to be pummeled by police, sprayed in the face with mace, or thrown behind bars for childish misbehavior before we take the necessary steps to ensure our schools are a place for learning instead of a fast track to prison?