For a fairer education system, get the police out of schools

Written by Olufunke Oba, Ryerson University. Photo credit: Unsplash/Wadi Lissa. Originally published in The Conversation.

Black youth suffer the negative effects of programs that bring police and racial discrimination into schools.

Last month the Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) in Ontario voted to pause a police-based program in schools, pending a full review.

The Student Resource Officer (SRO) program purportedly partners with schools to address issues like drug use, bullying and mental health, to conduct risk assessments and attend suspension re-entry meetings. The program’s stated aim is to “develop a positive relationship between youth and police.” In reality it disproportionately targets and criminalizes Black students.

As a social work professor my research on Black youth in WRDSB schools sheds light on the many forms of mental, verbal and physical racism that Black students encounter. In my research, I involved Black elders as co-researchers and created the Youth and Elders in Solidarity (YES) methodology to access the stories of Black high school students.

Including Black elders in both studies departed from risk-focused approaches and honoured Black cultural capital. I used the YES approach in another study where Black elders introduced 15 middle school aged Black girls and 12 social work students to Black history, language and culture.

This meant that Black elders participated in interview processes with youth, and were integral to accessing the stories of Black high school students. In so doing, my research method amplified Black-positive community connections.

Suspending the SRO program starts to address the impacts of anti-Black racism and human rights violations against Black youth in WRDSB. Defunding the police is a first step towards addressing institutionalized racism and state sanctioned violence against Black youth. Culturally sensitive proactive strategies are needed to harness the socio-cultural capital Black youth and their families already have.

Calls to defund the police have grown in the wake of protests against police killings of Black people. Photo credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck.

On June 3, thousands marched in a Black Lives Matter (BLM) Solidarity March in Kitchener-Waterloo. BLM Waterloo demanded that some of Waterloo Regional Police Service’s inflated 2020 budget of over $180 million be re-allocated to mental health and community support.

There are better alternatives.

Criminalizing Black students

The call to defund the police in Waterloo region is informed in part by the evidence that racialized people are more likely to be criminalized, suffer harm and even be killed when police have to act as social workers with guns. Research shows that criminalization of the mental health and substance use of Black youth leads to more youth violence and loss of life.

As a Black community member, long-time practitioner and researcher in Waterloo Region this comes as no surprise to me. The issue goes beyond the police. Beliefs that Black youth are criminal and delinquent contribute to differential treatment and criminalization of Black people in many public institutions including hospitals, child welfare systems and schools.

I found through my research that school staff and teachers were conflated with police in the eyes of Black youth. They face low expectations, are streamed away from academic paths and experience harsh punishment as teachers disbelieve their reports of racism.

They are alienated by peers, policed by teachers, suspected, feared and punished for being Black. Respondents expressed widespread fear of the police and felt silenced for fear of reprisal. Black youth know all too well the repercussions of encounters with law enforcement.

One respondent said that in the City of Kitchener’s downtown Victoria Park, “we see the police, we just leave, I tell you no one will believe you if they kill or frame you.”

Criminalization and undue suspicion put unfair academic limitations on Black youth and can leave lasting effects on their mental health. Photo credit: Unsplash/Brad Neathery.

With police surveillance in the school, staff and police can criminalize their resistance to racial oppression. This means Black youth have no escape from feeling unsafe, no place to relax, belong and learn. As one youth shared:

“… A police car kept following us, we parked, they stopped, the officer asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ Coach pulled up, angrily, he said, ‘Why are you harassing my boys?’ If I said that, I can get shot.”

The above participant’s account highlights the fear of getting shot for driving while Black. The killing of other Black youth weighed heavily on the minds of these youth and their parents who worry that their children may not come home alive.

Another participant said “the school, police, everybody blames Black guys, so it is suspension and carding all the time.” The issue of carding in Kitchener-Waterloo is not new. Neither is its disproportionately high impact on Black individuals.

The above examples from my research show that local Black youth feel unsafe on the streets, the park, the community and even in school. The demonization of Blackness, especially Black masculinity, creates easy targets for criminalization and police violence.

The school culture of race erasure ensures Black students were the ones to get into trouble, be suspended, expelled and even arrested for resisting racism. The youth believed that the school system and the police collude to harm them.

Addressing racism in schools

Systemic racism hinders a sense of belonging required for learning. The undue scrutiny Black youth face produces stress, and physical and mental trauma.

We cannot police our way out of racial inequity, mental health, homelessness and poverty. Nor will policing solve the discriminatory practices that push our children into foster care and the school-to-jail pipeline.

Waterloo Region’s all-white council recently passed a motion to combat racism without input from Black constituents. This continues a long tradition of leaving our community out of the conversation.

For the dignity, safety and lives of our children, WRDSB must dismantle the SRO program, collect race–based data and fund Black-led social and mental health services that police are not trained to provide. The WRDSB must introduce Black history in JK-12 curriculum and prioritize hiring Black teachers, guidance counsellors and social workers. Removing SRO and remedying systemic racism in our schools will demonstrate that Black young lives truly matter in the Waterloo region.