Schools, like every other major institution, are facing a major question for the foreseeable future: What is the relationship with law enforcement, and do educators need cops by their side to operate effectively?
William R. Hite Jr., Philly’s superintendent of schools, has come up with a cute response: rename Philly’s unarmed school resource officers “school security guards” and give them less imposing uniforms. Councilmember Kendra Brooks has said that she would like to see all police out of Philly schools, and a substantial and well-organized band of students is pushing for the abolition of school police.
I understand the spirit of the argument for getting rid of school police, but as a teacher, I think the current debate is emblematic of an issue that people who aren’t part of the educational community don’t understand: It is unfair — and unsafe — to add the responsibility (and legal liability) of policing to the already too long list of responsibilities we expect from our teachers.
I doubt that there's a single teacher in Philly who wouldn't love to see their school free of police.
Resource officers around the country are guilty of some astonishing abuses, and recent events give plenty of reasons to doubt their utility. In December 2019, a school resource officer was seen, on video, using a body slam on an 11-year-old boy, and multiple school resource officers were arrested in 2019 for sexual misconduct. What’s more: the original impetus for having officers be part and parcel of the educational atmosphere was to avert school shootings, and, in one of the deadliest school shootings in American history at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., officers not only were unable to stop the violence — they faced public scrutiny for failing to act appropriately, including one officer who hid in his car.
It is clear that resource officers, like all police in this country, are in need of a complete cultural and political overhaul, with stricter, more immediate consequences for misbehavior, a better reporting system for officers who cross the mind, and, more basically, constant training in anti-racism and socio-emotional wellness.
But as a teacher, I am not prepared, emotionally, legally, or in terms of training, to fulfill the role of safety officer. School staff, teachers included, are not always equipped to de-escalate high-risk situations, like brawls, potentially race- or sexuality-based violence, or use of weapons. These situations can’t — and shouldn’t — be handled by educators alone. Having safety officers in schools is about trying to ensure student safety. It’s also about making it so teachers don’t have to be first responders in dangerous situations, or assume legal responsibilities for developments far outside of the scope of their training.
Similarly, replacing police officers with “community members” or more social workers in guidance counselors does nothing to address that problem. As vital as community members and guidance counselors are in making a school work, there is no way that they can assume the job of a police officer without both committing to burdensome, physically demanding training, or taking away from their normal responsibilities.
Additionally, to ask school teachers to assume the responsibilities of a law officer is shifting a remarkable amount of labor onto teachers, who are already at the center of an overstressed, undersupported system.
Think of your neighborhood school. What entity operates more in the interest of your neighborhood? It provides parental services, mental and social welfare services, meals, and a community center. A neighborhood school is often the center of a neighborhood’s moral universe. In removing police from schools wholesale, you are asking schools, on top of everything else, to do the labor of police work.
At its core, that’s an admirable impulse. People trust schools, and they trust teachers to protect children. There’s nothing wrong with that.
But putting the responsibilities of police onto teachers is not only kicking the can down the road, it’s purposefully placing the final straw on the camel’s back. Schools need more, not to be responsible for more. Schools need more built up around them to be successful, not just more work and a couple more dollars.
If you want schools to operate more safely and with greater equity, support every extant measure to build strong, cohesive community supports around them. More diversion programs. More rec centers. More after school options, more community investment, more job opportunities, more and better welfare.
Someday, hopefully, police won’t need to be part of schools. But until then, until we are sure that we are not simply shifting the responsibility of law enforcement, please don’t place the burden of police work onto teachers.