Counter-Insurgency in the Classroom

School police embody the school-to-prison pipeline. They have no place in our hallways and classrooms.

A police officer patrols the hallways at a Virginia high school. Jahi Chikwendiu / Washington Post

On an early November morning in 2003, students at Stratford High in Goose Creek, SC milled around the school’s hallways and cafeteria waiting for the school day to start. Their morning routine was shattered, however, when police in SWAT team armor suddenly burst out of utility closets and stairwells with guns drawn, screaming at them to get on the ground. Terrified, some students froze in place while others ran for cover.

Black students in particular were the targets of intimidation and arrest. The principal, George McCrackin, coordinated with local police, timing the raid so it occurred just after the buses transporting students from predominantly black neighborhoods arrived. And two-thirds of those arrested were African American. As Jessica Chinners, a white tenth grader, said, “I looked down the long hall and saw the police lining up all these black students.”

While police “secured” the school, McCrackin personally accompanied officers through the cafeteria, pointing out students he thought should be arrested. Teenagers were removed at gunpoint with their hands zip-tied behind their backs while police dogs sniffed them for drugs — none of which they found. “I really don’t know why they did what they did to me,” Rodney Goodwin, a black tenth grade student, later told reporters. “I didn’t do anything wrong, but they arrested me.”

Video of the raid was leaked online, sparking outrage. In a letter to parents McCrackin attempted to exonerate himself: “I was surprised and extremely concerned when I observed the guns drawn. However, once police are on campus, they are in charge.” While McCrackin failed to mention his crucial role in the raid, his comment did highlight a stark truth about police and schooling: once cops are on campus, they are in control.

More than ten years after the Stratford High School raid, another incident of police violence at a South Carolina school has raised questions about the role of police in K-12 education. On October 26, video surfaced of sheriff’s deputy Ben Fields slamming a sixteen-year-old girl to the ground and dragging her across the floor after she refused to give her teacher her cell phone. The assaulted student — who suffered a broken arm, bruised ribs, back and neck injuries, and facial abrasions — was then arrested, along with a female classmate who spoke up and questioned Fields’ resort to violence during the assault.

Racists like Ted Nugent — who compared the student to “an animal” and said she “had it coming” — came out in support of the police with characteristic victim blaming and misdirection. Meanwhile, mainstream outlets commenced their usual dance of equivocation, hand wringing, and impotent calls for reform.

CNN questioned whether schools need police officers in the first place, before ultimately concluding that while there are a few bad apples, school resource officers (SROs) are a good thing because they

supervise lunchrooms, coach sports, promote drug and alcohol awareness and become confidants to teens who might have never thought they’d befriend a police officer. SROs may build relationships at a key time in many young people’s lives.

But the question of why police are even in schools deserves more attention. Mainstream media coverage tends to justify the presence of police as a response to student violence, pointing to Columbine and other school shootings as reason for increased security. Yet while there’s some truth to this account, it effaces the broader political and economic context in which SROs were introduced.

The Drive to Criminalize

The first program that linked schools and police launched in the turbulent year of 1968 in Fresno, CA. Americans were becoming accustomed to police violence that decade, witnessing nonviolent black protesters in the South viciously attacked with dogs and water cannons and largely white protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention beaten as police rioted through the city.

With anti-police sentiment growing, cops entered Fresno schools to counter the antipathy. Putting police in schools was part of a new paradigm of community policing, a model that encourages law enforcement to get to know local inhabitants.

Contrary to popular perception today, community policing was not designed as an alternative to aggressive militarized police forces, but as a complement to a grander counterinsurgency strategy.

“Community policing,” anti-police activist Kristian Williams writes, “helps to legitimize police efforts by presenting cops as problem-solvers.” By developing connections between police and community leaders and normalizing police presence in the neighborhood, “community policing provides a direct supply of low-level intelligence. . . . These are not incidental features of community policing; these speak to the real purpose.”

So too with policing in schools.

Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of Resource Officers, acknowledges the intelligence-gathering aspects of school policing: “The main purpose is to develop rapport with the students so that students trust them enough to either inform them about other classmates planning violent incidences or turn to the SROs for help when they themselves are in trouble.”

On the face of it Lavarello’s claim that police are needed to “identify and solve problems before they erupt into violence” might seem reasonable enough. But his comments have to be put in the context of modern policing.

Beginning with Nixon’s law-and-order campaign, which was then ramped up and expanded through Reagan’s war on drugs, police have systematically targeted youth of color to control and stamp out dissent.

Reagan’s first drug czar, Carlton Turner, revealed the political motivation of the drug war when he stated that marijuana was a gateway to “the present young-adult generation’s involvement in anti-military, anti-nuclear power, anti-big business, anti-authority demonstrations.” Prosecuting the drug war helped correct, to quote conservative academic Samuel Huntington, the “excess of democracy” that characterized the late 1960s.

As the drug war was ramping up, a fear of youth seemed to grip the nation. One of the proximate causes was the 1989 Central Park jogger case, in which a young investment banker was raped and severely beaten as she ran through Central Park.

The case quickly became a media circus as the New York police speculated that gangs of black youth were terrorizing people in the city. NYPD Detective Robert Colangelo even came up with a name for the game teenagers were purportedly playing: “wilding.” Like it’s more recent analog the “knockout game,” wilding was a racist myth. But the media ran with it.

Five teenagers (four black and one Latino) were quickly arrested, tried, and given long prison sentences. After spending years incarcerated, the defendants’ sentences were vacated in 2002 when a serial rapist — not the five boys — confessed to committing the crime. No gangs, no wilding.

The Central Park case didn’t lose its potency through the 1990s, continuing to fuel a wave of panic about minority youth violence. Writing in the Weekly Standard political scientist John Dilulio coined the term “super-predator” to describe black urban youth “who pack guns instead of lunches . . . who have absolutely no respect for human life and no sense of the future.” Dilulio quoted anonymous district attorneys who warned of kids who “kill or maim on impulse without any intelligible motive” and predicted an oncoming crime wave perpetrated by these super-predators.

Headlines like “The Criminals of Tomorrow,” “Kids Without a Conscience?” and “Should We Cage the New Breed of Vicious Kids?” filled newspapers and magazines for the next two years.

At a policy level, the hysterical drive to criminalize was conducted in a bipartisan manner, with both Republicans and Democrats working to increase the police’s presence on the streets, extend already lengthy prison sentences with mandatory minimum sentencing, and make it easier to try juveniles as adults.

The result was an incarceration boom even as crime fell.

Building the Pipeline

As police moved into public schools, many white families moved out. This year, for the first time in US history and after decades of suburbanization and white flight, the majority of kids in the public school system are non-white. Meanwhile, whites make up nearly three-quarters of the student body at private schools. In cities like Philadelphia the move from public to private school has left some teachers asking, “Where have all the white kids gone?”

Class and race are deeply intertwined in the United States, and shortly after the news that a majority of public school students are non-white came reports that 51 percent of public school students are living in poverty.

For the last forty years Americans have been living through a period of stagnating wages and skyrocketing income inequality. Social programs have been slashed in favor of more cops on the street. And incarceration rates have skyrocketed, because imprisonment is how America controls its poor.

It is in this context that school police — of which there are now 82,000 patrolling the halls, in 63 percent of middle schools and 64 percent of high schools — must be placed. School resource officers are not there to protect students, but to police them.

Schools with a majority of poor and non-white students are the most likely to have a police presence. Once inside schools, police enforce zero-tolerance policies, giving kids a jarring introduction to the criminal justice system.

Zero-tolerance policies in schools were initiated by the 1994 Gun Free Schools Act, which was designed to create mandatory minimum punishments for students caught with a firearm. But the policies quickly spread as a way to justify and maintain discipline.

A new study by law professor Jason Nance shows that schools “appl[y] zero tolerance to a multitude of offenses, including possession of drugs, alcohol, or tobacco; fighting; dress-code violations; truancy; and tardiness.” For example, earlier this year police arrested ten high school students in San Antonio on charges of inciting a riot for having a food fight. States are criminalizing behavior that previous generations would simply consider the trials and tribulations of growing up.

After examining the latest data from the Department of Education, Nance concludes that “not only is there no evidence that zero tolerance policies have made schools safer, these policies have pushed more students out of schools and have created conditions whereby more students become involved in the juvenile justice system.”

Because predominately non-white schools are particularly over-policed, people of color are far more likely to find themselves caught up in what has come to be called the school-to-prison pipeline.

A host of studies confirm that black students are much more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended or expelled, and are much more likely to be arrested or referred to police for misconduct at school. And a report released earlier this year by the African American Policy Forum found that black girls are six times more likely than their white peers to be expelled from school.

Seen in this light, Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields’ violent actions hardly seem to be those of a bad apple. Rather, they should be viewed as the natural product of a system that, through zero-tolerance policies, increases the amount of contact between police and kids — greatly increasing the chances that students will be harmed at the hands of cops.

In Oklahoma City a school resource officer is under investigation after a video surfaced showing him punch a high school student in the face for not having a hall pass. In Moore, OK a police officer assaulted an autistic middle schooler for banging on a school keyboard. In Pawtucket, RI high school students protesting a school resource officer who body-slammed a classmate were pepper sprayed by school police.

A high school police officer in Conyers, GA tased two teens to break up a fight. Two special needs students, ages eight and nine, in Kenton County, KY were detained by a sheriff’s deputy for disrupting class. Their wrists were too small to handcuff so the school resource officer handcuffed their biceps behind their back. A police officer working for San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District shot and killed a fourteen-year-old student who tried to run away from him in 2011. The list could go on and on.

A Necessary Evil?

Despite all the bad that comes from putting police in schools, some might still maintain that police are needed to protect students from mass shootings. But it’s telling that even in the case of Columbine, more police and more guns didn’t make for a safer school.

Columbine High School had an armed security guard on the premises the day of the shooting, and as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked the halls murdering their classmates, eight hundred police officers and eight SWAT teams were on campus. But the SWAT teams refused to enter the building “because they deemed the situation too dangerous,” instead choosing to “secure the perimeter.”

Nor was it Columbine or similar tragedies that spurred the proliferation of SROs. From the beginning, SROs were tied up with militaristic community policing schemes to integrate police into neighborhoods. They were linked to the feared rise of “super-predators” and “wilding.” And they were to be substitutes for a social safety net that had been destroyed at the behest of capital.

More akin to occupiers than guardians or confidants, SROs embody the school-to-prison pipeline that needs to be dismantled.

The only proper response is to demand the removal of all police from the public school system. If we want to keep students safe, it’s more investment in education, jobs, and housing that we need — not more cops.