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Imagining Schools Without Police

Editor’s note: At the 2020 national convention of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), BTU’s parent organization, The AFT passed a groundbreaking resolution, “Confronting Racism and in Support of Black Lives,” that lays out 19 commitments to combat systemic racism and violence against Black people, including the separation of school safety from policing and police forces nationwide. Despite this commitment from AFT, BTU does not have an official position on school police at this time because we know that our members have a diverse range of strongly-held opinions on this issue. What follows is one member’s view.

By Nathan Ferrell

Baltimore City Public Schools’ Students deserve to learn in an environment that is free from violence and trauma.  That means a transformation of school culture from the punitive, carceral logic of the school-to-prison pipeline to a new reality of communities where people are accountable to each other, and have the resources to prioritize de-escalation, reconciliation, and restoration in the face of trauma and harms caused.  Before I explain why so many of us are calling for police-free schools, we need to know how we got to a place where there are police in schools and what organizing has been happening to resolve it.  

The Baltimore City School Police force was created in 1991 but Baltimore City has had police patrolling schools since 1967. It is the only sworn school police force in the state of Maryland. They are represented by Fraternal Order of Police Baltimore School Police Lodge #5. Officers have full arrest powers within city limits, but defer to BPD for more serious crimes. School police are permitted to carry guns, but with restrictions. There are approximately 117 officers patrolling a student population of 85,000 high-school and middle school students1. The School Police historically overspend their allocation in the budget. The School Police Leadership are never penalized and spending continues to rise2 while BCPSS and Baltimore City underspend on Social-Emotional Learning based on what they’re allocated for in the budget.  The result is that we end up spending far more on police than we do on restorative approaches to a positive and safe school climate. 

We need to be offering social and emotional support for our community facing mental health and addiction challenges. We need to train ourselves in restorative practices and de-escalation. Schools would be a good place to start. 

We know that our students come as they are. Poverty, structural racism and centuries of disinvestment mean that our students bring the violence and trauma of their communities into the school buildings. 

The state of Maryland has never fully funded City Schools, thus impacting our ability to meet student needs. When class sizes increase and support staff decreases, there often is no adult available to thoughtfully de-escalate with a child who is in crisis, much less spend the time necessary to make meaningful amends for harm caused and address the root causes of their behaviors. 

Physical removal from the learning environment and suspension are the easiest and least resource-draining responses. They’re often supported by teachers, PSRPs, and schools whose values otherwise align with restorative practices. When an under-resourced environment is overwhelmed by the needs of the students, the practical will win out over the philosophical. We end up with more police in schools. But for what? As a deterrent to violence in schools? To protect us from a school shooter? 

The shooter at Douglass High School wasn’t unique. Like so many others described in the FBI’s A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000 and 2013 (which includes school shooters3), he had an active grievance and ready access to a weapon. As traumatic of an incident as this was for our brothers and sisters at FDHS, it should have been a wake-up call for all of us.  The police that were on duty at the site of the incident were not even the ones who resolved the situation with the shooter. Instead of increasing police patrols, we need to establish and fully fund unarmed trained professionals like nonviolent de-escalation teams, community relations stewards and mental health intervention experts to help address grievances before they escalate, as well as stronger gun control, not police patrolling our hallways.

Author and social justice scholar Dr. Monique M. Morris reminds us in her book “Sing a Rhythm Dance a Blues” that “safety is co-constructed, not implemented. No one and nothing can be brought in to generate safety. Safety must be developed by the individuals and institutions together. Moreover, police officers are particularly ill-equipped to lead efforts that promote safety in schools because they tend to respond to danger with the same tools used for oppression – intimidation, force, arrest and violence. These methods don’t facilitate safety in schools.”  As the saying goes, if a hammer is the only tool you have, then everything looks like a nail.

Many BTU members know a school police officer that they consider a good person and an important member of the community.  I agree that many school police are well meaning individuals and contribute to the community. However, I don’t think the institution of policing has a role in our schools. There are many non-police based roles in our schools where these same former school police officers can work, lead and serve as mentors for our young people. They don’t need a gun and a badge to do it.  Understanding that we all deserve to receive restorative practices training and sustained support, we call for the district to give all adults working in our schools as police officers the opportunity to be interviewed and hired under a new role within BCPSS as members of the BTU with pay and benefits comparable (or better) to that of their role as previously employed school police. These former school police would be re-hired under a different role, such as “restorative practices coordinator” and would be members of the BTU and not just police under a different name.

Many folks are very comfortable saying the words Black Lives Matter, but BLM is more than just a phrase, it’s a movement with specific demands, one of which is the national defunding of police both inside and outside of schools.  If we are truly committed to teaching and learning that facilitates healing and freedom, we must divest from police and invest in programs and supports that address the root causes of violence in the first place.  We cannot create a different kind of society while reproducing the same failed carceral structures of the adult world inside of our young people’s school buildings.

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Nathan Ferrell teaches Spanish at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. This piece borrows from and is inspired by the research and writing of a number of BTU educators who have been organizing for police-free schools.