When Stephanie Vela taught seventh grade in San Antonio, Texas, school police officers suspected that a student had brought weed to school but couldn’t confirm who. In response, administrators decided to call the police on the students “to teach them a lesson.”

“So they lined them up against the wall—girls and boys—and just, you know, patted them down,” said Vela. “They didn’t touch them inappropriately, but all of them were patted down. That was a very helpless moment for me because they clearly didn’t have anything on them. Afterwards, the principal talked to the students, and was just like, ‘This is what’s going to happen every time we hear of a rumor of you guys bringing elicit stuff into the classroom.’”

The next day, Vela talked to her class about what had happened. While some of the students shrugged it off, others expressed fear and anger. 

“Two of my girls told me that it made them feel really uncomfortable and it made them a little scared,” said Vela.

For her students, who were predominantly Black and Latino, Vela recognized that instances like these become blueprints for what they will come to expect in their future interactions with the police, both inside and outside of school. Here, the presence of law enforcement distorts the function of schools by teaching students “lessons” about how they will come to be criminalized, as opposed to curating environments where real learning can take place.

Stories like what happened in Vela’s classroom are commonplace throughout the country, and as with other forms of police misconduct, the use of social media in recent years has illuminated the prevalence of in-school police violence. Online platforms have propelled particularly heinous incidents onto the national stage, like footage captured last September of a Broward County school resource officer body slamming a 15-year-old female student.

These cases of police waging violence against students have spurred a growing movement to remove police from schools entirely by defunding their budgets or terminating school board contracts with local police departments. The police-free school movement is rooted in the idea that this kind of intimidation is not just the result of isolated incidents, but rather a culture embedded in how law enforcement is designed to function within schools.

In the wake of recent uprisings and mass demonstrations against police violence spurred by the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, the police-free school movement has sparked public interest in how police violence permeates beyond the streets and into hallways and classrooms. In just the past month, the movement has already seen notable wins.

On June 2, the Minneapolis School Board voted unanimously to terminate their $1.1 million contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. On June 10, the Los Angeles teachers union voted in favor of the elimination of the Los Angeles School Police Department’s (LASPD) $70 million budget. In recent weeks, police-school contracts have also ended in cities from Denver to Charlottesville.

“Once you know the history … that’s when it really clicks”

Law enforcement presence in schools scaled up rapidly in the ‘80s and ‘90s, supported in part by rhetoric about rising rates of juvenile crime, perhaps best exemplified by the infamous concept of “superpredators,” which was coined by political scientist John Diulio and popularized by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton. While such stereotypes contributed to making police a fixture in schools, it also occurred despite the fact that actual youth crime rates were not rising at all.

In the decades since, the role of law enforcement has been strengthened in many school districts and the weight of that power often comes down disproportionately on Black and Latino students. For example, an analysis by Million Dollar Hoods—a research team based at UCLA—found that between 2014 and 2017, the LASPD, which has the largest school police force in the country, made over 7,000 youth arrests, citations, and diversions. Black students comprised 25% of them despite representing less than 9% of the student body.

These disconcerting statistics mirror the equally troubling roots and origins of the LASPD and other school police forces like it. Launched in 1948, LASPD’s primary function was to patrol schools in increasingly integrated neighborhoods. It served as one of the first school policing programs that was borne out of political desires to control newly integrated school districts.

The historical link between policing, race, and school integration is something that Jaliyah Floyd, an 18-year-old organizer at Rockaway Youth Task Force (RYTF) in New York, likes to share with people who push back on the group’s campaign to remove police from their schools.

“Once you know the history of metal detectors and police officers, then that’s when it really clicks,” said Floyd. “So I like to tell people the only reason police officers started going to schools is when schools integrated and Black people started entering white schools. When there were just white schools, why were there no police officers then?”

RYTF, which advocates for food justice, criminal justice, education justice, and civic engagement, is among a handful of New York-based groups that created the framework for the Solutions Not Suspensions bill. The bill would eliminate suspension for students in kindergarten through third grade, severely restrict suspensions for older students, and encourage the use of restorative justice models for resolving in-school conflicts.

RYTF is also campaigning for the removal of police from New York state schools. Groups like RYTF exemplify how the movement for police-free schools is not only growing, but is being led by students.

“It gives the school a prison-like environment”

While police departments claim their presence is meant to address external threats that may endanger students and school administrators, young people say that law enforcement ultimately surveils, antagonizes, and even wages violence against the students themselves.

“Personally, I go to a school that is heavily policed,” said Akeria Adams, a 16-year-old youth leader at RYTF. “Everywhere you turn, you see one. I feel like it gives the school a prison-like environment—it doesn’t make it feel like you’re being safe or being protected. It makes it feel like you’re being criminalized, watched, surveillanced for nothing, and many times [school security agents] have been seen to escalate situations and make them more aggressive than they are. This is a school at the end of the day. Why are we treating it like it’s a prison?”  

Compounding the danger that students feel in the presence of in-school police are concerns that disproportionate funding for law enforcement diverts much-needed resources away from services like guidance counseling and mental health programs. The disparity between funding for what students need and what their schools are providing is a clear parallel to the larger movement to defund the police that has taken shape nationwide since the high-profile police killings of Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.

In New York, the stark discrepancy between education and police funding has shaped the demands crafted by groups like Teens Take Charge, a youth-led organization leading advocacy campaigns for education equity. The group is currently pushing for the reallocation of funds from the NYPD to the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Youth Services.

Lorraie Forbes, an 18-year-old high school senior at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn and an organizer with Teens Take Charge, said that proposed budget cuts from the mayor and city council include $641 million from the Department of Education, $175 million from the Department of Youth Services and Community Development, and yet only $25 million from the NYPD—despite the fact that the police department has a $6 billion budget. For her, the negative impact of putting policing before counseling and youth services is deepened by the fact that these disparities in resources fall along racial lines.

“What makes me so mad about it is the fact that New York City’s education system is the most segregated in the United States,” said Forbes. “There are a bunch of school safety officers and everything like that and scanning machines in Black and brown neighborhoods, but you go into a white neighborhood, and you go to one of their schools—like Beacon High School [in Manhattan], it’s a beautiful big school, has a lot of funding, everything like that, [and there’s] no scanning, no metal detectors, no school safety [officers], no nothing.”

In 2013, 51% of predominantly Black and Latino high schools nationwide had law enforcement. And even within more racially integrated schools, Black students are more than twice as likely as their white classmates to be referred to law enforcement or arrested at school.

The tense dynamics between in-school police and students of color as compared to their white peers is something that Floyd notices everyday. While she attends a predominantly white school in Rockaway County with few officers, their presence still makes her uneasy as a Black student.

“Because I’m in a predominantly white school and I’m a person of color, I know that I get seen differently compared to my counterparts and peers and it’s not a good feeling,” said Floyd. “They try to act friendly, but it can’t be a good dynamic because they are perceived to arrest people and not protect them. My idea of protection is not a security guard. It’s actually talking to someone who is going to help me and walk me through a situation and be able to let out my emotions and things like that. That’s what the DOE is failing to see, you can’t get through a situation unless you talk, and throwing someone in handcuffs is not going to help.”

“They’re ready and they’re able and we need to listen to them”

While social media and digital organizing infrastructures have allowed these young leaders to mobilize their peers and organize during the COVID-19 pandemic, the current movement for police-free schools grows from seeds that earlier students planted years ago.

In Minneapolis, students had been asking administrators to remove police from their schools for years. Our Turn, a local youth organizing group, started campaigning for the termination of Minneapolis Public Schools’ relationship with the city police department in 2016 following the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile.

In an interview with BuzzFeed about George Floyd’s death, Kenneth Eban, Our Turn’s senior manager of organizing for the Twin Cities, said: “To see George Floyd on the pavement, already restrained, that was something that was undeniable. But in a way, that was sad and unfortunate, because students have been saying this for years. It feels unconscionable, that you couldn’t just listen to the people who were most deeply impacted by what’s happening.”

The Minneapolis School Board’s decision to terminate their relationship with the police department at this particular moment comes in part due to public outrage toward the city’s police force as well as the fact that their contract was set to expire. The board’s contract with the police department terminates every three years with the option for renewal.

Minneapolis School Board Chair Kim Ellison says that their new plan, which is set to be proposed by the city’s school superintendent on Aug. 18, must be a radical reimagining of school safety as opposed to an “SRO lite.” Her hope is that it appropriately reallocates funds to health services, counseling, and restorative justice programming and that it is co-developed with students and centers their voices and demands.

A student representative sits on Minneapolis’ School Board and this year, that representative—Nathaniel Genene—has already proactively engaged with students about what they’d like their safety proposal to look like moving forward. Ellison says that three days after an initial board meeting about eliminating police from Minneapolis Public Schools, Genene put together a student survey that garnered over 1,500 responses and found that 91% of students did not want school resource officers.

“In three days, he was able to get that much information from students, so they’re ready and they’re able and we need to listen to them,” said Ellison. “It’s their school, so what makes them feel comfortable?”

In an interview with Jesse Hagopian for The Nation, Genene shared some of what his peers offered as viable alternatives, including “increasing access to mental health services for Black, Indigenous, and students of color; promoting restorative justice and the use of restorative justice practices; hiring more social workers, counselors, and teachers of color; increasing the salaries of adults who already mitigate conflict, and security provided through community outlets.”

“In terms of what more we need to do to make black lives matter at school, I believe we need to hire more teachers of color,” Genene told The Nation. “And we must make sure that we have a curriculum that reflects our students, especially our Black and brown students. This uprising is showing us that we can make those changes and so many more.”

In Rockaway County, student organizers say their concerns are sometimes dismissed by politicians who suggest meager reforms, or who attempt to relate to them by sharing that they too attended the same schools in their youth and experienced similar issues.

“Okay, you went to school then? Well, we’re in school now,” said Keneisha Buckley, a 15-year-old organizer at RYTF. “And we’re seeing these problems arising now and we need them fixed now. Although we might be young and we might be still growing mentally, we know what needs to be done and we know what to do to get it done. So us being at the forefront, along with our adult allies, basically makes us more powerful than having an adult do it.”

In New York City, Lorriae Forbes of Teens Take Charge echoed that same desire to shape one’s own school community. She said that young people interested in organizing against policing in their own communities must first educate themselves on the intricacies of the issue and then mobilize around other young voices.

“There is a quote by Nelson Mandela that I literally live by, and it is: ‘The youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow,’” said Forbes. “So whenever you’re organizing something, it has to do with the youth even if it doesn’t benefit you personally. Like me, I’m out of school in literally a few days. I graduate in a few days but I’m doing this for my siblings. I’m doing this for my future kids.” 

Tamar Sarai is a features staff reporter at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @bytamarsarai.