“I don’t care if someone disagrees with what I did.”
What former school police officer Ben Fields “did” was body-slam a 16-year-old Black girl to the ground and drag her across the floor while she was still in her seat — all because she refused to leave the classroom after the teacher said she was texting.
According to new research from the Advancement Project and the Alliance for Educational Justice, this act of violence at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina is one of at least 285 incidents where school-based police injured—or killed—students between 2011 and 2021. These findings are especially disturbing given that politicians continue to tout school police as a remedy not just for school safety, but also for school shootings, even when studies show that police presence does not reduce the likelihood or severity of such incidents. Indeed, armed school police can actually increase the number of casualties in these incidents, though it’s not clear why.
What we do know is they can make the learning environment more dangerous for students, with very little accountability. Especially when it comes to the harm they perpetuate against Black girls. The new research shows that 84.4% of school police assaults where student race was identified were perpetuated against Black students, while only 3.2% targeted white youth.
At the National Women’s Law Center, these statistics are unsurprising. For years, Black girls have been telling us that schools prioritize their punishment over their care. Although Black girls are no more likely to misbehave than other children, they are more often punished for typical, childlike behavior, and strict school policies like dress codes disproportionately target their hair and other elements of self-expression. Educators often justify harsh discipline of Black girls with phrases like “too loud,” “too provocative,” or “too disrespectful.” But such discipline is, in fact, often a result of adultification bias, where adults, including school police, perceive Black girls as older than they are and less innocent than their white peers. The result? Black girls are around three times more likely than white girls to be referred to law enforcement and 3.66 times more likely to be arrested at school, like when six-year-old Kaia Rolle was arrested after throwing a tantrum that involved kicking.
The research, anecdotal and otherwise, makes clear that school police particularly target Black and Latina girls, forcing them to endure violent police interventions in routine disciplinary matters, with some incidents resulting in harassment, assault, and even death.
Take Mona Rodriguez. The 18-year-old student was shot in the back of the head by a school safety officer through a car window, after leaving an already de-escalated, off-campus fight. She was left brain-dead and eventually taken off life support. I wish we could say her killing was an isolated incident. But between 2011 and 2021, school police killed at least five students—three by gunshots, according to the aforementioned research.
Facing these horrific and sometimes deadly incidents—really, an additional category of school shootings—how can we continue to believe that school police will protect our students? Research shows that when schools prioritize care over criminalization, students feel safer and more engaged. Yet, in response to school shootings, lawmakers continue to choose school policing because it is a politically palatable way to show they’re “taking action.”
But that “action” is grossly ineffective. Every year, federal lawmakers throw millions of dollars at school-hardening programs that perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline. Take the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed after the Uvalde school shooting. It appropriates a sizable amount of funding for mental health services, which is generally a positive step, but by making the association between guns and mental health, it wrongly implies that gun violence is primarily driven by individuals with mental health challenges. And this Act allocates hundreds of millions of dollars that may be used for tactics like coordinating with school-based police officers, installing metal detectors, and implementing formal systems for threat assessments, which can lead school officials to profile students of color and disabled students, seeing them as potential perpetrators rather than children worth protecting.
These tactics only foster environments where children are tackled in situations that involve disrupting class, standing on the bus, taking too much milk, or pointing finger guns — while school shootings with real guns remain all too commonplace.
What students need now more than ever are positive school climate laws that prioritize care over criminalization such as the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act, the Ending PUSHOUT Act, and the Protecting Our Students in Schools Act, which would dedicate funding to programs that support students’ academic, social, and emotional growth. Every parent desperately wants to protect their child from gun violence. Although school police may seem like the answer to school safety, too often they are part of the problem. To put a stop to these tragedies, we need to refocus our attention on building holistic safety in schools and finding better ways to protect our students, rather than policing them.
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