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What's the Plus?

School Police Officers Are Only One Branch in Our Racist Education System

By Daniel Helena

I have been pleased to see the LAUSD School Board take steps toward reducing the police presence in schools. But let’s be clear: Exclusionary discipline practices and policies, as well as the implicit and explicit biases entrenched in the pedagogy and mindsets of too many school and district administrators and educators can be just as pernicious and trajectory-altering for students as sworn officers roaming the hallways. School resource officers are but a single branch in America’s racist education system; we need to make sure to also address some of its roots because reducing or removing that branch will diminish but not completely eliminate unnecessary and egregious policing of students.

A few years ago, I worked at a school that trained me to internalize a broken windows criminology theory. I was taught to sweat the small stuff. How could students learn anything meaningful if they have shoelaces that are not aligned with our handbook? So I would send students to the office until they were able to correct their dress code. How would students ever grow to be responsible citizens if they’re not immediately reprimanded for momentarily and mistakenly leaving their school supplies in a teacher’s classroom? So I would issue the student a three-hour-long punitive detention because that was the protocol. These are more of the clear-cut examples, but there were many “infractions” that fell in the gray area. On a daily basis, I had to wrestle with issuing demerits to students for being “disrespectful,” “rowdy,” and even whispering to one another while I addressed the class. My core values were at odds with school policy, but what was more damaging was the subliminal message that I routinely gave students: You’re not good enough. You need to be like this (even if it’s out of your control). It was a harmful policy rooted in racism. The fact that nearly all the students were Black, Indigenous, or of color was even more appalling. Yet, I was complicit.

Our education system is, in a large way, built upon respectability politics―the idea that our students should embrace white middle-class social and moral values―and we need to call it out, particularly when those politics harm our students. At that same school, I recall our school leader admonishing our staff because students were not comporting themselves “appropriately.” That just so happened to be a day when potential donors were touring our campus. It was a fitting example of how educators are often more concerned with the optics of learning rather than students’ actual learning.

True equity requires us to meaningfully engage with the people we’re aiming to help, rather than prescribing solutions at a distance based solely on quantitative data. Our students don’t need our charity; they need us to see, hear, and join them in solidarity. I’m proud to now work at a school where I’m allowed to, dare I say, welcome “misbehaviors.” I do my best to keep in mind that behavior is communication. Rather than shutting down the lines of communication by immediately issuing consequences for perceived infringements on our school culture, I check in with students to see what might be the underlying reasons for their actions. My grade level team regularly raises concerns if we notice something that might be “off” with a student; oftentimes, one of us has some helpful insight. This is central to my work because the interest I show my students helps me build meaningful relationships with them.

I hope that defunding school police is not merely a way to appease the outcries that have come from this racial reckoning we find ourselves in. I know from firsthand experience that under the pressure of district and school leadership, teachers can replicate some of the more harmful effects associated with police officers. I hope teachers and school staff will wield their great power to promote a liberatory consciousness amongst our students and decolonize educational spaces. My research shows the need for school and district leaders to prioritize learning opportunities for relevant, research-based professional development such as social emotional supports and implicit bias training for all staff members. Districts also need to improve organizational conditions by providing ongoing bias and critical race theory training for school administrators. Training and development could prompt educators to consider questions like: How do I tend to respond to certain student behaviors; and how does my inclination advance or inhibit my students’ well-being? How does my school or classroom reflect my students’ culture and encourage them to be agents of change for causes they deem important?

We have a tremendous opportunity to make meaningful reform in our schools, but the first revolution is internal. Many of us are educating ourselves on practicing anti-racism. That work is not separate from the work we do as educators; our conduct is singular, so our principles should also be singular. Let’s continue to look within and do the challenging, yet critical self-work while we push for structural changes. As we demand changes from others, let’s also take the time to question how we’ve upheld racist structures, knowingly or otherwise.

Daniel Helena teaches 6th grade English at Kory Hunter Middle School in Los Angeles’s Florence-Firestone neighborhood. He is a Teach Plus California Policy Fellowship alum.

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