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Inside The National Movement To Push Police Out Of Schools

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The nationwide protests and conversations around racial justice have led to a push to remove police officers from security positions inside schools, and it's taking place across the country. School systems in Minneapolis, Denver, Seattle and Oakland, among others, have all moved in recent weeks to suspend or phase out ties with police. Anya Kamenetz from the NPR Ed team takes a look at the history and the impact of police in schools.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Getting police out of schools has been a key demand of the Black Lives Matter movement for years. Jesse Hagopian, a teacher and activist in Seattle, says that's for two reasons.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: There's just so much research that shows that they aren't making our kids safe, and there's been horrific acts of police violence in schools.

KAMENETZ: Hagopian points to two separate incidents captured on body cam footage in the fall of 2019. One officer in Florida put a 6-year-old girl in handcuffs as she sobbed. Another in New Mexico was shown shoving an 11-year-old girl against a wall. Both students were Black.

HAGOPIAN: What is happening in schools around the country is instead of figuring out how to help that girl who's having a difficult time by having counselors, we meet these kids with force.

KAMENETZ: At least two-thirds of American high school students attend a school with a police officer. The proportion is higher for students of color. And data shows that schools with cops tend to refer more children to law enforcement, including for non-serious and non-violent behaviors. All of this adds up to what Monique Morris calls the criminalization of Black students.

MONIQUE MORRIS: The presence of police in schools I believe is fueled by a dehumanization of children of color which suggests that there needs to be a constant surveillance of these children in schools.

KAMENETZ: Morris is a scholar and filmmaker who focuses on Black girls' educational experiences. She says new research shows that in majority-white schools, police officers are more likely to think of their job as protecting the school from outside threats such as shootings. But in schools with majority students of color, the police are instead looking at the students themselves as threats.

MORRIS: For children of color, we see that this leads to hyper-criminalization and a way that people perceive them to be criminal even if they're just being children.

KAMENETZ: So how did we get to this point? School resource officer programs began in the 1950s to strengthen ties between police and the communities they serve. They grew quickly starting in the '90s amid fear about school shootings. The federal Department of Justice has funded these programs to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, expanding its support after the Parkland tragedy in 2018. And today, millions of students, especially students of color, attend schools that have police officers on staff but no nurse or school psychologist.

In polls, parents largely support the presence of armed officers in schools, and until recently, so have teacher unions. The National Association of School Resource Officers said in a statement this month that these officers when properly trained can prevent violence and juvenile arrests while building positive relationships. And yet, police officers have rarely been able to intervene and actually stop a mass shooting in progress. Nor is there positive evidence that they make schools safer in other ways.

That contrasts with dozens of documented incidents in the past decade where a resource officer tasered, pepper-sprayed, injured or otherwise used force on a student. The good news, says Morris, is that there are evidence-based safety alternatives already in many schools. These include positive behavioral interventions and supports, restorative justice programs and having mental health counselors and other people available when students are acting out.

MORRIS: Rather than calling in law enforcement, they can take a breath and go into meditation. Or they can watch a video and learn how to reset their emotions.

KAMENETZ: These strategies, she says, can make schools safer and more welcoming for all students without police.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.