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A Collective Letter in Advocacy of Police Free Schools

On behalf of four organizations: the New Bedford Coalition to Save Our Schools (NBCSOS), New Bedford High School Alumni for Black Lives (ABL), From the Community for the Community, and BREATHE!, we would like to respond to some of the comments made regarding police officers in schools at the July 13, 2020 meeting of the school committee. We asked that this letter be read in entirety in the public comment section of the school meeting, since it represents the views of multiple organizations and people. The letter was never read. In fact, the school committee did not make time for public comment. In the past few months, the school committee has not been very clear on the structure of its meets. The time of meetings keep shifting. Public letters are not read.The chat box in virtual meetings are opened and on subsequent meetings, they're shut down. Meeting links are not posted in timely manner so that the public can get to them. It is highly problematic that it is precisely at a time when the public should be engaged that the committee chooses to disengage.

There appeared to be confusion regarding the history of police in schools. Permanent police presence in schools is a policy with a racist history throughout the country, this is especially true in Massachusetts. 

The placement of police in schools was initiated in the 1960’s and 70’s and it was meant to protect white anxieties over desegregation. Louise Day Hicks -- the politician and long-time Boston School Committee and City Council Member -- was alarmed by Boston’s school desegregation order and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s imposed desegregation mandates. She was frustrated by the bounded nature and respectability politics of ordinary school committee work. She created the organization Restore Our Alienated Rights (ROAR) to mobilize white communities to resist integration by both non-violent and violent means. The organization was critical in circulating anti-black racism. The organization was also effective in coding protestors resisting segregation as criminals in need of social control. The organization’s work prompted the mayor of Boston to deploy over half of the city’s police force into the schools. This deployment was conditioned on fears of radicalized transitions. It was continued on anti-Black racism. Policy histories are important. It is difficult to fully understand policies without historical analysis. As symbols of racism are taken down throughout the nation, perhaps we should also dismantle racist structures. 

Indeed, the history of education is steeped in racism. High stakes testing is just one among other policies that has a racist history in IQ testing promoted by educational psychologists who were also eugenicists. Eugenics was a pseudo-science that viewed black and indigenous people as inferior. At the time, it was accepted science practiced in many Universities and beyond. Whether literature, history, art, music, science, the curriculum continues to be anchored to Eurocentrism and whiteness. An anti-racist educational system would have clear evidence of an anti-racist curriculum and would embrace the Black Lives Matter movement and curricular materials and organizational dynamics that support it. The New Bedford Public Schools cannot name or claim any of this space. We believe that all of these structures should be examined. We are at a crucial time in history where multiple crises are converging. If we get this right, we will never go back to normal. 

How can the school system claim to be an anti-racist organization and yet retain policies that have a racist history?

Today, the reasoning for the use of SROs is often credited to reducing the likelihood of school shootings. As we have explained previously, what the policy actually does is enhance unsafe conditions, as it increases the risk of criminalization and youth involvement in the criminal justice system through greater frequency of police presence in the lives of people. Furthermore, it contributes to the creation of urban schools in the image of prisons, which has a devastating self-fulfilling prophecy. 

School shootings, as rare as they are, are far more likely to occur in affluent school districts that are primarily White. The FBI reports that the most likely demographic to commit a mass shooting at a school is a White male between the ages of 10-16. Despite this information being very well-known, police presence and heavy surveillance occur in urban districts comprised of a significant population of students of color, immigrant students, and poor and working class students.

Is this really about keeping schools safe, or are we utilizing police in schools to criminalize youth and socially control communities despite stated intentions? 

Some school committee members acknowledged the empirical evidence but want to believe that New Bedford is the exception. A request was made several weeks ago for multiple pieces of information to assess this exceptionality. To date, we do not have information regarding annual performance review protocols, standard operating procedures or any information regarding reviews of SROs by the superintendent and chief of police or a written memorandum of understanding between the school district and the police department that details the following according to the law: 

“(i) the mission statement, goals and objectives of the SRO program; (ii) the 

roles and responsibilities of the SROs, the police department, and the schools; 

(iii) the process for selecting SROs; (iv) the mechanisms to incorporate SROs into

 the school environment, including school safety meetings; (v) information sharing 

between SROs, school staff and other partners; (vi) the organizational structure 

of the SRO program, including supervision of SROs and the lines of communication

between the school district and police department; (vii) training for SROs, including

 but not limited to continuing professional development in child and adolescent 

development, conflict resolution and diversion strategies; and (viii) specify the 

manner and division of responsibility for collecting and reporting the 

school-based arrests, citations and court referrals of students to the 

department of elementary and secondary education in accordance with 

regulations promulgated by the department, which shall collect and publish 

disaggregated data in a like manner as school discipline data made available

 for public review.”

All of these structures are required by law. We wish to especially call attention to the underlined above. The fact that this is non-existent means that New Bedford is not exceptional. If it were, at the very least, the data would be readily available. 

If our educational system is truly serious about appeals to “evidence-based practice” and “research-based practice,” then why continue the policy of having police officers permanently placed in schools? 

Today, Black and Brown youth are disproportionately subjected to punitive policies at all levels of disciplinary processes because their behavior is perceived to be more threatening, disrespectful, and inappropriate compared to the behavior of white students. Negative interactions with school police is more likely to occur with students of color. This, despite the fact that countless research over the past forty years has concluded that Black and Brown youth do not violate school policy any more than white youth. Of course, interactions with police are most concerning given that this leads to the criminalization of youth. And, it must be stated, that by interactions we are also referencing the forms of uncritical information sharing that flows between police, administrators and educators. 

In the last school committee meeting , it was argued that the SRO program seeks to build relationships between police and young people. That argument fails to address the very reason why those relations are fractured in the first place. When we consider these reasons, we come to the realization that it’s an abusive policy. Why are we forcing the building of “relationships” between police officers and students, in an institution that makes the attendance of young people compulsory? Police presence in schools normalizes the interaction between students of color and police. There is no need for this increased interaction. If the police department feels the need to “repair” the negative relationship between youth and police, then school is NOT the place to do that. To undertake this act in schools forces students of color to interact with people they see and experience as abusive. 

What is the purpose of schools anyway? Many young people fear dentists and doctors. Why don’t we seek and allow the permanent presence of medical professionals in schools to build relationships? 

One school committee member was wrong to lash out at members of the committee who stated that they wanted to collect more information on the issue. Personalizing this issue and summarily rejecting the evidence is an irresponsible position for any elected official or administrator. The member of the committee stated that the presence of police cruisers is a deterrent. We ask: Where is the evidence? There is none! What the member was referring to was the possibility that such visual displays may serve as a deterrent. What we are discussing is the certainty of many young people being traumatized by such displays and the presence of officers given that they have had a parent or close family members who have been caught in the criminal justice system and/or they may have had someone deported or fear the likelihood of deportation daily. Are we preventing shootings or are we re-traumatizing students given some families history and the constant (although highly improbable) reminder that a shooting can happen any day? The school shootings that have happened have occurred as a result of the shooters mental health issues. In almost all of the cases, the warning signs were present. In almost all of the cases, police were present in schools when the shooting involved. What was not present is the existence of sufficient school- based counselors and mental health workers who could have intervened in a timely and effective way. Perhaps, that’s where our resources should be placed. It is harmful to claim that school resources officers “mentor” or “counsel” students when they have not been educated or licensed for such roles. 

Our Black children know what’s going on in the world. The past few months, in addition to living through a pandemic, they’ve seen protests, saw people who look like them get killed by the police, and even have seen this happen to their family members at some point in their lifetime. They are seeing the media actually have a discussion of whether or not their lives even matter; and even worse, they see people who, in response to saying BLACK LIVES MATTER, will say BLUE LIVES MATTER. School should be safe for ALL of our children. Our children should not come to school nervous. Choosing to ignore the experiences of the community and the data that undoubtedly shows that police presence in schools is not in the best interest of our Black students (or any student for that matter) is harmful and allowing space for casual and passive racism to exist.

Some have claimed that in 2002 it was an SRO who thwarted an attempt to shoot students and staff at the New Bedford High School. This claim was/is false! It was a custodian who found a note and a student who reported the plan to a teacher. It was the teacher and the custodian who intervened. The attempt to rewrite the history of an event that occurred eighteen years ago to justify the presence of SROs today should tell us all we need to know about the efficacy of the program. Why must educators be subjected to an overwhelming regime of accountability and proof of their efficacy when SROs have virtually no such standard of proof? And, quite frankly, we are not convinced that simple use of metrics will correct the issue as whenever numbers are utilized justify any program that is high stakes for a party, what normally occurs is deviance. That is, the metrics are manipulated in ways that makes it appear that things are working just fine.  

In the last school committee meeting, it was stated that there were still unanswered questions and that the school committee would convene a committee to look into the issue of police in schools and that the community would be engaged in the process. To date, this has not happened. At least, we as members of the community, have not received any notice about such an effort. And, we would like to remind those on the committee who are silent on this issue that silence is also a position. 

Why is the school committee so reluctant to go to work on this issue? 

It is common for school committees members to think that those of us who bring attention to these issues don’t really know about the pressures associated with being a member of the committee. It is often assumed that the real work and the heavy lifting happens on the school committee. That’s only part of the reality. Institutions change when they are courageous people inside of them that take a stand. We are hoping that some of you will find that courage. However, make no mistake about it, institutions only change given the pressure of community organizing and social movements. History has amply demonstrated that to be so. Power equals the number of times you get to tell your story and White folk have driven the narrative on what makes school safe. We need to create space for those who bear the most social cost in our community, to tell their stories. Let us end the attitude of excluding the community. Let us recognize that we are living in times that the community should be driving the dialogue and treated as full partners in decision-making. And, by “community,” we do not mean the use of a few representatives for communities of color easily controlled by those in power. This, of course, does not mean that the community is always right about the issue as there are divergent viewpoints. We also have to engage the professional literature and research. It is through open dialogues that we are more likely to come to community-based solutions grounded on solid research. Shutting concerned people and groups out is deeply disturbing. Here in New Bedford, you have the perfect opportunity to be on the right side of history.

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