The Making of Unsafe Schools for Black Youth

By Jade Jacobs

Illustration by Megan Rizzo

This piece is a part of our Spark Series Imagining Abolition and Educational Safety Beyond Policing

A Contemporary Education Policy Issue

Despite a growing body of research which shows police presence causes more harm than good, school districts still spend large portions of their budgets on school police. Police are stationed in more than half of public schools, and more than 14 million students with access to police lack access to direct physical or mental health support.

Proponents of policing in schools argue that police protect students and educators from outside threats and attacks like school shootings, when the reality is some police view the students themselves as threats. In fact, policymakers’ reaction to the 1999 Columbine High School Shooting was to double down on police presence in schools, and as a result, PK-12 public schools saw an increase in the criminalization of students. This criminalization particularly impacts Black students who are overrepresented in every form of discipline — from teacher-issued referrals to corporal punishment to suspensions, expulsions, and police arrests.

Without the criminalization of Black youth, it is likely we would not concede to police in schools as a symbolic solution for PK-12 school safety.

Chronicling the Criminalization of Black Youth

Historically, U.S. laws and policies have created the very conditions that promote delinquent and truant behavior among Black youth. In 1899, one hundred years before Columbine, W.E.B. DuBois warned in his book The Philadelphia Negro that White people have a duty to put an end to discriminatory practices they created. “By shutting Black boys and girls out of most avenues of decent employment they are increasing pauperism and vice, then they must hold themselves largely responsible for the deplorable results.”

In 1938, the federal government enacted the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act — their first attempt at juvenile law, with the purpose of keeping juveniles apart from adult criminals. Coincidentally, in 1939 the first members of law enforcement were welcomed into Indianapolis Public Schools. A “special investigator” was hired to supervise a loosely organized group of police officers to patrol school property, perform traffic duties, and conduct security checks after hours.

Discriminatory hiring practices in the forties during World War II had a direct impact on school-aged Black youth and major cities began to experience an increase in truancy. As documented in Emory University Professor Carl Suddler’s book Presumed Criminal: Black Youth and the Justice System in Postwar New York, Black youth became “critical of the education system and the preparation it provided for employment opportunities.” Frustrated by racism and the economic hardship it placed on their families, most believed “school was a waste of time.” Schools were not welcoming or motivating for them to want to attend, and as a result many Black youth dropped out.

In the 1960s, policymakers and public figures grew worried in response to Black youth expressing continued frustrations that came with being unemployed and economically unstable. The Kennedy administration enacted the Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Offenses Control Act of 1961. This act sought to “provide Federal assistance for projects which will demonstrate or develop techniques and practices leading to a solution of the Nation’s juvenile delinquency control problems.” The Johnson administration picked up where the Kennedy administration left off, and Yale University Professor Elizabeth Hinton traces the rise of mass incarceration to the social welfare programs of the Johnson administration in her book, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America.

Perhaps the most pivotal legislative enactment was the Ford administration’s 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. Reauthorized as recently as 2018, the act is a partnership between the federal government and the U.S. states, territories, and the District of Columbia to protect children and youth in the justice system, to effectively address high-risk and delinquent behavior, and to improve community safety. At the time, this act ensured Black youth could no longer exist in public without the presence of police patrol. From the time they would leave their homes, walk down the street, catch transportation, and arrive at school, Black youth would be surveilled and targeted as a potential criminal and juvenile delinquent. Surveillance of Black youth continued to increase exponentially during the Nixon and Reagan administration with their War on Drugs policies. These policies have had a lasting impact on Black youth and the Black community at large.

The Criminalization of Black Youth Opens the Door for Welcomed Intruders

Increased police presence in schools is intertwined with the increased presence of Black youth in schools. The first school resource officer (SRO) program began in 1953 in Flint, Michigan with the goal of improving relations between police and youth, and protecting students and staff. The following year, school segregation was ruled unconstitutional and desegregation orders were mandated as a result of the landmark case Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). Police were welcomed into schools under the guise of enforcing integration.

Fast-forward to the nineties which saw over $15 billion directed towards prisons and prevention programs in response to the passing of the Gun Free Schools Act and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. Where more resources should have gone to providing youth with more education, rehabilitation, recreational and employment opportunities, they instead went to facilitating the transfer of youth from schools-to streets-to prison.

Just as recently as last year, New York City Public Schools, the nation’s largest school district, spent $450 million on SROs, according to a report by the Urban Youth Collaborative,

Welcomed Intruders Are Symbolic Solutions

I use the term welcomed intruders because although police have been welcomed into school buildings, their presence is intrusive. Police presence creates a hostile learning environment for Black students, exposing them to physical violence and providing a false sense of security. Juvenile defender and Georgetown University Law Center professor Kristin Henning chronicles the criminalization of Black youth, its impact on adolescent development and the police’s role in “keeping Black youth in their place” in her book, Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth. She argues, “For many students, schools have become a literal and figurative extension of the criminal legal system.”

Black youth have consistently been failed by a system that invests millions and billions of dollars into fighting crime that would not exist if all residents of the United States were provided livable wages, affordable housing, and access to free, quality education and healthcare. Professor Henning profoundly states, “Police in schools are symbolic. They provide an easy answer to fears about violence, guns, and mass shootings. They allow policymakers to demonstrate their commitment to school safety. And for a time, they make teachers and parents “feel” safe. But those who have studied this tell us this is a false sense of security.”

The intrusive presence of police further perpetuates racial discrimination and stereotyping, with Black students reporting not feeling safe with police on campus. Exclusionary responses to students’ classroom behaviors create inequity as they disproportionately affect minoritized youth and students with disabilities, increasing the likelihood that minoritized youth will end up in prison, and maintaining the school-to-prison pipeline.

Jade Jacobs, EdM, MSLIS is a PK-12 Education Policy and Law Scholar and recent graduate of Teachers College, Columbia University. Jade is a trained librarian and has expertise in education policy, teaching and learning, and literacy and human development.