Washington, D.C., residents have had enough. Just a few weeks ago, over 16,000 students, educators, and community members signed on to comment on Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed budget increase for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). An overwhelming majority called on the D.C. Council to defund MPD and remove all police from D.C. schools. Several D.C. students, mostly Black girls, joined the call. Every single student of the few who were able to testify via Zoom shared their frustration, anxiety, and fear of police. 

I’ve seen this fear up close. As an education advocate based in Washington, D.C., I know how frequently Black girls are harassed and abused by police officers in school. And despite the ongoing national movement against policing and a growing economic crisis, the mayor and D.C. Council failed to remove police from all traditional and charter schools.

Why do we need police-free schools? 

It’s simple: police do not make schools safer. In fact, they often put students in danger. School police officers are drawn from the same police department that routinely targets Black and brown communities, sexually abuses residents, and costs the District millions in misconduct settlements. This history of violence and intimidation is one of the reasons Black children report feeling unsafe around police both in and out of school.

The MPD plays an outsized role in our schools. Rather than primarily responding to instances of physical violence, school police are often called into classrooms to deal with cell phones, “bad attitudes" and minor disciplinary issues that should be dealt with by teachers or counselors. Something as trivial as failing to complete homework can set a Black girl on a path to the criminal justice system. 

In the last two years, Black girls across the District have risen up against racist and sexist dress codes, which often result in aggressive, unwarranted police enforcement. I worked with students who shared examples of police stopping them from entering the building for simply wearing the wrong color shoes or pants, or demanding they remove items of clothing like head wraps and sweaters. Not only does this violate students and prevent them from learning, it furthers a culture of harassment, racism, and sexism. 

Black students face the same racist stereotypes and biases that lead police to attack first and ask questions later. According to civil rights data from the Department of Education, Black students in the District make up 71 percent of students, but 93 percent of school-based arrests. Black girls in the District are more than 20 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers — the highest suspension rate in the country. And it’s not because Black students are misbehaving more often. They’re punished more harshly than their peers for the same or, often, nonexistent offenses. 

D.C. students need support — just not the kind police can offer. Shockingly, DCPS students are more likely to have a police officer in their school than a counselor or social worker. We have chosen to invest in policing over mental health professionals, counselors, psychologists and other adults whose mission is to keep schools peaceful and students safe. And as a result of making the wrong investments, Black students are least likely to say they can reach out to a teacher or another trusted adult in the building for mental health support. 

The policy decision to invest in police and divest from mental health professionals — essentially as a means of fueling the prison system — is shaped by 400 years of anti-blackness that has far-reaching consequences beyond the classroom. Black students live in racially and economically isolated neighborhoods that lack adequate health care, housing and economic opportunities. And with the looming economic crisis, it is even more important to make critical community investments, especially inside schools.

Some have raised the question: Without police, how will students be safe from school shootings? The truth is there is little to no evidence suggesting that school-based police officers stop school shootings. 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a federal nonpartisan research center, recently released a report on the characteristics of school shootings and found that they are more prevalent in wealthier, white areas, which is at odds with the fact that most school police are found in schools that serve students of color. The GAO, along with D.C. students and grassroots organizations, pointed to the need for a different approach to safety, one that prioritizes community violence interrupters, mental health supports, social and emotional learning and transformative justice training for teachers, all of which are proven to create safer, healthier schools. 

The good news is that D.C. residents seem to have come to a consensus. Two-thirds of D.C. voters support removing police from schools. Students of all ages, especially those involved in the DC Girls’ Coalition and Black Swan Academy, are spending their summer fighting for police-free schools and investments in their communities. But when given the chance, D.C.’s elected leaders refused to cancel the $23 million contract that keeps police officers in school. 

The D.C. Council gained glowing reviews for “removing the contract” from the MPD and redirecting a small amount of funds, but they really just moved the management of the police contract to DCPS. Much like painting a Black Lives Matter mural downtown while enabling police violence, moving a police contract from one location to another amid public outpouring for police-free schools is insulting and inadequate. The D.C. Council should cancel the contract. 

In the midst of a health pandemic that is overwhelmingly impacting Black communities, an economic crisis, and relentless police violence, Black girls in the District are demanding what they deserve. They’re asking to learn safely — free from police, policing, and harassment. It’s past time we listen and immediately remove police from D.C. schools. 

Nia Evans is an organizer, advocate, and co-author of Dress Coded: Black Girls, Bodies, and Bias in DC Schools. She holds a Master’s Degree in Education Policy and Management from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research on Black girls and school discipline has been featured by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. 

Published on Jul 22, 2020