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Blackness, Disability, and Policing in American Schools

Here we are again. More than three weeks after the murder of George Floyd and three months after the murder of Breonna Taylor, we are again left to reflect on the brutal legacy of police violence in this country. Some are affected by what they’ve seen. Others are indifferent. As a Black woman, it revives feelings of anger and grief I’ve felt repeatedly—after the lives of Korryn Gaines, Atatiana Jefferson, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tony McDade, and so many others were taken by those who swore to protect and serve.

George and Breonna offered the ghastly reminder that the world could have been mourning my father, my mother, my godbrothers, my sisters. The world could have been mourning me.

Me. As an advocate for educational equity for all students, I have also been thinking about the impacts of police brutality in schools. There are about 46,000 police officers (often referred to as school resource officers or SROs) in the country’s 130,000+ public schools. Using SROs to address student behavior has led to disparities in the treatment of Black students and students with disabilities h that mirror those of society at large.  According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, students with disabilities represented 12% of overall students in 2015-2016 but made up 26% of students receiving out-of-school suspensions and 24% of those expelled. 15% of students nationwide are Black, but Black boys made up 25% of suspensions and 23% of expulsions and Black girls made up 14% and 10%, respectively. Intersecting these identities only leads to worse results: 19% of the population of students with disabilities are Black, but they represent over a third of those suspended. Finally, of students arrested or referred to law enforcement at school, 30% were Black and 28% had disabilities. 

Discriminatory practices also include restraint and seclusion, both of which can lead to injury, trauma, or death. Of the 87,000 students who were restrained during 2015-16, 71% received special education services and 27% were Black. Of the 37,500 students who were secluded, 66% received special education services and 23% were Black. This disproportionate application of discipline could, and often does, foreshadow what happens to Black people and individuals with disabilities after leaving school and entering society: the same exact thing. Tanesha Anderson, a 37-year-old Black woman suffering from mental illness, was restrained by Cleveland Police before they killed her in 2014. Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who had a developmental disability, died at the hands of Baltimore police while restrained in 2015.

In aggregate, these data provide insight into how the seeds of unequally meted discipline feed the school-to-prison pipeline, expose the chronic mistreatment of Black students and students with disabilities, and challenge the need for police in schools. This mistreatment has a profound effect on student learning—not only for those subject to such actions but also those who bear witness to them. 

So, what is being done to address this injustice? The broader conversation around police brutality has inspired action. In recent weeks, we’ve seen proposals from cities such as Portland, Minneapolis, and Denver to remove police from their schools. At the federal level, Representative Karen Bass of California and several of her Democratic colleagues have unveiled the Justice in Policing Act, which, among other efforts to address biased police violence, would create federal grants for pilot programs to develop strategies around recruiting and training officers, including school police. Perhaps one of the most important provisions is limiting the transfer of military equipment (e.g., flash-bang grenades, bayonets, weaponized drones) to local law enforcement agencies, which often include school police departments. Demilitarizing SROs could significantly improve interactions with students should districts choose to keep officers on school grounds. Police brutality affects every segment of society. Addressing the intersection of police and schools is just one piece of the pie.

In an ideal world, my people wouldn’t be murdered at alarming rates at the hands of police or white supremacists. Neither Black students nor students with disabilities would be suspended, expelled, or subject to harsh physical punishment at disproportionate rates, and both groups would have equitable access to quality education. They’d go to schools equipped with trauma-informed staff and mental health supports available to assist them in navigating life both inside and outside of those walls.

We must pass and implement the Justice in Policing Act. We must elevate the cities and districts working to revise or terminate their SRO contracts to serve as pilots. Then, we must closely monitor the impact on discipline rates of Black students and students with disabilities and their ability to learn.

I bet we’ll see some change.

Simone Hall is a Policy Specialist at the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.

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