Updated: Feb 20
This is not an article about defunding the police. Those articles have already been written by far more knowledgeable people, and with conclusions that make sense in their focus, policy recommendations, and logistical applications. This is also not, per se, an article about defunding school police, or severing the ties between schools and police departments, as those articles have also been written and also make a lot of sense. This article is about challenging the notions of power and purpose that result in the assumption that adding police to schools is not just helpful, but essential, to daily operations.
Police enforce compliance. They enforce compliance with traffic laws, to the point that decoy police cruisers and intersection cameras accomplish much of the same result (without the too easily predicted detours into vigilante justice). They purport to enforce compliance to the social contract, by detaining those who would perpetrate violence or theft on others (apart from reasonably frustrated arguments about the scale and scope of that detention relative to race and class factors). Police are there, presumably, to make sure everyone is following the rules.
In some belief systems, enforcement of rules represents an external pressure to conform to a set of values such that the internal processes will adapt and come to accept these values and practice them willingly. This approach argues that modifying behavior results in cognitive and emotional changes, which then feeds into new, more socially acceptable behavior. We believe this approach to be flawed in a number of significant ways, and may actually do more to induce rule-breaking than to deter it.
Any attempt to modify behavior without first understanding the causes of the behavior is problematic. In our approach, based on the work of Nonviolent Communication, all behaviors are strategies used to satisfy needs, and most often represent the best strategy a person has for a given situation at that particular time. Thus, enforcing behavior changes without connecting them to specific unmet needs (ie developing an understanding of the internal and contextual circumstances at play when an individual chooses a behavior that does not work for other members of the community) is at best a roll of the dice that may or may not result in a positive outcome.
The external-to-internal approach also tends to rely upon externally created rule and response systems, thus removing the individual participant - in this case, a student - from all aspects of the process. The rules are dictated to the young person, often as a series of negative statements (“Don’t do ____”) or highly restrictive directions (“Walk on this line silently”), with little, if any, input or recourse to challenge particular rules. At least the case can be made, even if weakly, that adult citizens have the opportunity to vote for representatives who might change problematic laws; this opportunity rarely exists for young students.
Similarly, the response to rule-breaking is dictated from authority figures regardless of buy-in or input from the students. Rewards are handed out based on performance relative to the values the particular school or district holds and expects young people to achieve; punishments are doled out for the opposite performance, and often with more aggressive and lingering results. For example, As and gold stars might help you get a better job someday, but suspensions, grade retention, and arrest will greatly increase your risk of catastrophic adult outcomes.
Think for a moment of all the people you know in your life. Who among them would be willing to comply, day after day, with a system they had no hand in designing, which does not routinely take their mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing into account when addressing behavioral challenges, and which distributes rewards and punishments based on compliance to norms and values they have had no voice in deciding? If you can’t think of anyone, then consider why this is generally expected of students. If you can, then ask the follow up question: is this working out for them?
Forgive the digression...there are, of course, innumerable teachers and counselors who are working very hard to increase student buy-in and autonomy, build meaningful relationships that go beyond test scores, and that connect classroom management and culture to a more transparent understanding of power dynamics and systems navigation. There are also many in this category who, when pressed, revert to a deep-seated mistrust of young people. Phrases like, “for their own good” and, “do it because you’ll need to know it later”, speak to this mistrust, and to a need for compliance.
Teachers in conventional schools rely on compliance. The content is primarily decided above their employment level, with a few modifications, as are the assessment tools. Class sizes and schedules, even in the best circumstances, are not wholly decided by the teachers. There may be some leeway for classroom reward and punishment systems, but they must align with, and are subservient to, the broader school systems. The students are at least one more degree removed from the decision-making, and thus experience just as much, and likely more, detachment from the rules and responses of the system. Thus, the only way anything gets done is via the compliance of the students.
Students must comply with the dress code, the schedule, the classroom rules, the hallway rules, the bathroom and lunchroom rules, the technology and personal property rules, the content in each class, the arrival and departure times, the voices on the loudspeaker, the instructions on the homework and standardized tests, and more. They must comply with all of these regardless of what is going on in their lives outside of school and within their school-based relationships. They must comply regardless of the weather or current events, their own excitement or anxiety, or countless other things that make us people. They must comply or the whole system crashes.
Police in schools enforce compliance when the teacher is unable. Teachers are able to outsource the enforcement of compliance when they have exhausted the limited tools they have to prop up systems they may not believe that strongly in. Teachers outsource compliance as a message to the other students, and as a way to dismiss one person’s attempts to meet needs as a disruption and inconvenience to the academic work. Police in schools, like the broader culture, allow the compliant to judge the noncompliant then return to business as usual. These systems require compliance, and because developing understandings of the reasons why people do not comply is inefficient, messy, and deep, we tend to look for quick, blunt enforcers of compliance so we can get back to business.
The only way to really remove police from schools is to remove the need for compliance. As long as it is there - divorced from the needs and values of the young people, tied to irrelevant content and hypercompetition, and supported by incentives and punishments - teachers will be pushed to either enforce it themselves or look to outsource the enforcement. Either way, policing is a natural outgrowth of the ways we have constructed our school systems, and any meaningful talk of removal must be accompanied by the more difficult conversation about the purposes of schooling.
Our recommendation would be to begin by including young people and their families, as well as other community members, in the creation of the goals, norms, culture, and structures of the school, including how to understand each person involved as a whole person. We would encourage matters of discipline and classroom management to be viewed through a more holistic lens, with behaviors and engagement being the results of needs and feelings and wishes, and that efforts to address challenges treated as individual and community growth opportunities. Rewards, incentives, punishments, and any other adult-sanctioned external motivation or compliance system should be dismantled and replaced with efforts to identify content and opportunities that resonate with individual young people, to create space for intrinsic motivation, creative exploration, and personal reflection. Teachers as facilitators of youth development rather than purveyors of content; money previously spent on policing and other behavioral management solutions could support services for family challenges (or coordinate with groups already doing the work). There are more, but you get the point.
Create spaces where people seek to know each other, to offer support for challenges that manifest in inconvenient behaviors, and value personal growth and responsibility over compliance. Create spaces that do not require policing because everyone feels cared for and invested in the culture. Create schools that serve a different purpose than we’ve come to expect.
This is not an article about defunding school police. There are many great articles where you can read about this here and here. There are also some wonderful first hand accounts about school police here and here. This article is about reimagining education is a way that school police are no longer necessary.
I have been an educator for over 15 years and in this time, there are many unpalatable things I accepted every day about schools. School police, however, were only a part of my experience in public schools in Philadelphia. They weren’t in the public elementary school I taught in Fairfax County, VA, a progressive school in Los Angeles or international school in Cairo, Egypt. But here they were right at the front of a public school in Strawberry Mansion.
Here is the thing I want to say very plainly: children aren’t trusted in the United States and everything about schooling as we know it says this. The way they are “managed” in school, the curriculums that feed them answers to questions they haven’t asked and testing just to make sure they know what a group of researchers, test writers and educators believe they should know. These and many more things could be pointed out as ways we don’t trust young people but for a Black or Brown child in this nation, this lack of trust actually turns to fear, apathy and at worse, violence. The very fact that we place police officers in urban areas tells us this.
I wanted to write this article as a show of solidarity with the students and supporters at 215 People’s Alliance. I wanted to stand up as an adult who has stood in a building and watched an school police officer carry a child as young as 5 years old from a room to say this: any educational model that needs a police officer to “manage” children is not only broken but abusive and dangerous to the population it purports to serve. This dominator culture we live in is harming our children and every single one of us who stand idly by watching it happen are complacent and therefore guilty.
As a matter of my own self-preservation, I left these environments in search of more respectful and affirming methods and spaces. I have landed in a model that has deep, indigenous roots and a controversial space in American education: self-directed education. A model intentionally outside the school paradigm, young people at our center are registered as homeschoolers. Our work looks at education as an internal process that can happen anywhere and process as being valued above content. Meaning, it’s not about what you learn but how you learn. With that as a belief, we set out to leave space for young people to explore their own interests with adults (including parents and community members) as supportive, informed collaboratives and/or guides when invited.
Now what I have come to see as particularly important and I believe, helpful to illuminate in this moment, is that this work is done in direct opposition to a dominator model. We want to partner with young people and encourage their own development of partnership thinking. With this in mind, we have embraced tools of nonviolent communication, creative problem solving and most recently practices to support somatic trauma healing to support giving young people the internal tools needed to self-regulate. Rather than an adult punishing, managing or worse, policing youth, our intent is to facilitate practices that allow young people to identify their own needs and feelings, identify and understand the needs and feelings of others, and work collaboratively to find win-win solutions. The results of this work, when modeled and supported consistently at home and in our community is powerful for young people and their families.
We envision a world where people have learned to manage themselves and to listen with compassion to others. When I think back to my days of hiding an angry elementary school child in my room to just give them a break to relax and de-escalate, I realize how far away schools are from our vision. We stand by all young people in Philadelphia and we, too, demand new, more humane ways of being with young people. We assert that all young people deserve to be treated with respect and care. Listen to young people. Abolish school police. Let this be one step towards making the world we wish to see versus perpetuating what is obviously broken and harmful.