Greetings Chairperson Allen, Councilmembers, and staff. My name is Chibundu Nnake and I am a Ward 6 resident and the Manager of Advocacy and Policy for Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS). Since 1996, we have supported the diverse set of public charter schools in DC by advocating for and strengthening school quality, equity, and diversity.
Laquan McDonald. Rekia Boyd. Trayvon Martin. Trayvon would have been 24 this week on February 5th. These names are embedded in the minds of the social justice community because they represent a system that many believe is not designed to protect certain people and communities. Trayvon even more so because of his death and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. This week is also the D.C. Area Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Schools which is taking place in cities across the U.S. to promote a set of national demands focused on improving the school experience for students of color.
In the past week, we have seen no fewer than 4 instances of police brutality in schools across the country. In a country devastated by the deaths and injuries of hundreds of people, many of them unarmed, at the hands of police officers, drastic changes are needed in our approach to public safety. Such excessive force by police is particularly disturbing given its disproportionate impact on students of color.
DC Council has been intentional with the steps they’ve taken to reduce the school to prison pipeline; passing the Student Fair Access to Schools Act last year. We believe the next step in reducing that pipeline stems from addressing the longstanding adversarial relationship between law enforcement and communities and to help create law enforcement agencies that work collaboratively and democratically with all of the communities they serve, increasing transparency, accountability, fairness, and public safety.
School Resource Officers (SROs) provide a critical service to our schools and should be partners ensuring the overall safety and security of our schools. SROs should provide a calming presence, a safe environment and de-escalate troubled situations. However, the duties of these officers, including when and how they will interact with students, are rarely spelled out clearly in contracts or other documents. Use-of-force policies are often unavailable, even upon request, leaving parents, students, and advocates in the dark about what they can expect from SROs.
Compounding this transparency problem is the disturbing lack of data about how and how often officers interact with students. Many law enforcement agencies have no requirement to report interactions between police and students. This means that data related to use-of-force incidents, including the use of tasers, pepper spray, and various pain-compliance maneuvers, is very hard to obtain, which can make it more difficult for families to file complaints or challenge inappropriate officer behavior. Additionally, the officers who interact with students may not have sufficient youth-focused training, and risk causing serious physical harm to young people.
Many schools have shared a variety of examples involving their negative interactions with law enforcement at their schools. However, many of them are also so fearful of law enforcement that they opted not to testify for fear of retribution and retaliatory behavior in the form of being non-responsive or even more violent.
As I quote, one leader stated that “Metro Transit has no sense of community policing. Recently I witnessed first-hand a massive response to our students on a Metro station platform where students were handcuffed, restrained, and back up came in shooting automatic air gunshots into the air; the whole thing was out of control and their officers were escalating it. I honestly fear what would have happened if the head of school and several other school staff were not present first. Metro Transit seems to rather respond instead of work to prevent situations from occurring through ‘common sense’ practices.”
Another leader shared how “police and schools are often pitted against each other and not mutually supportive because law enforcement pressures schools to produce student information without any legal authority. Police also often try to interview students without parental notification or consent (for incidents that don’t involve parent/guardian neglect), even informing parents that they cannot be present for a student interview. MPD and CFSA have also removed students from school without notifying parent/guardian (who subsequently then show up for dismissal and do not know where their student is). Law enforcement needs to remember that students are kids because too often they treat them like adults.”
The final anecdote that I would like to share comes from a school leader who an officer told them along with their school principal that “we would be arrested for obstruction of justice if we failed to retrieve a student from a class so that he could be interviewed (no arrest warrant or other documents were produced). We were simply asking that the student’s parent be notified and consent before the interview took place due to the student’s age.”
There is a need for SROs to be a partner within our schools and with our school leaders. However, as we are working to better educate our students, we must also find ways to promote safe learning environments for all through better “policing.” The tried and true methods of “stop and frisk,” “jump outs,” “circumventing rights,” and participation through coercion or duress; may have seemed to pass the muster for “effective” policing in the 80s or during Jim Crow, but they are horrible ways to positively engage and develop community and are also unconstitutional.
FOCUS convened charter school leaders and staff last summer and these were their agreed-upon priorities that would help to make accessing schools safer for students:
- Require law enforcement officials (MPD, Metro Transit, SROs, etc) to receive anti-bias and cultural competency training, as well as youth-focused training to better aid their interactions with students so that they use tactics that are less likely to cause harm.
- Metro Transit especially seems to employ the use of excessive force
- Fund programs that support safe passage such as “Man the Block” and task SROs with acquiring Victim Services support for schools impacted by community violence.
- Develop a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between law enforcement agencies (MPD and Metro Transit) and our schools outlining the relationship between school administrators, SROs and the community.
- Provide a higher allocation of designated MPDs to high schools where an increased number of incidents take place so that the officers have a greater presence and can respond to issues more quickly and consistently. Sometimes it takes an officer 45 minutes to respond/arrive at school to a 911 call. More police officers on the streets would be less effective than having them in circulation between schools and developing relationships with students and the community.
- Ask the Department of Transportation to review the most frequently used bus and metro lines by students and ensure that enough assets are deployed on those routes for timely pickup and dropoff.
- Increase the number of crossing guards, consistent police patrols near Metro stops where high student traffic occurs and along high-traffic safe passage areas
- Streamline the Kids Ride Free program to ensure no delays in card distribution.
We envision a city where law enforcement treats all communities with dignity, employs restraint on police power and uses only the degree of force necessary to maintain the community’s safety. Students should be safe traveling to, during and from school; regardless of their neighborhood, age or ethnic background, especially by those obligated to serve and protect. When law enforcement develops relationships with kids, not just respond to the crisis of the day, this will yield benefits in decreasing crime citywide since schools touch the lives of so many families.
Thank you for your time. We look forward to working with you to provide solutions for our students and their schools.
Manager, Advocacy and Policy