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“We Can’t Arrest Our Way To Safer Schools”: The Need For Proactive Work And Commitment By The Adults

Hard cases make bad laws. Policymakers’ overly punitive and police-centric response to high profile school shootings demonstrate this fact. But if you have doubts, ask the six-year-old child who was handcuffed to a chair as punishment after he got into a scuffle with another boy in the school cafeteria. If he doesn’t convince you, perhaps the scores of schoolchildren who police assaulted with pepper spray (while at school) will. Or talk to one of the 3.3 million public schoolchildren who are suspended from school each year, often as a consequence for minor rule breaking, such as talking back to teachers or fistfights.

Police presence in schools exploded in the post-Columbine era when well-intentioned policy makers wanted to take decisive action to ensure the safety of our schoolchildren and to protect them from school shootings. As an unintended consequence of this policy shift, countless schoolchildren have been targeted by school-based police officers (also known as school resource officers) and subjected to police brutality in their public school.

Some children escaped physical abuse, but may have seen their life chances evaporate when arrested at school for offenses like excessive flatulence or wearing the wrong color uniform.

Of course, not all school resource officers are out to arrest or brutalize students. A study by the University of Chicago found that those school resource officers who put down the pepper spray and handcuffs, and instead built relationships with students that allowed them to proactively identify and diffuse potentially violent situations, were far more effective at keeping the peace than those officers who always arrested students after an alleged incident.

We all want to prevent violence in our schools.  And thankfully, in the year since the Sandy Hook Shooting, the second worst school shooting in the history of the United States, more school districts shied away from Columbine-era solutions. Schools districts across the country are recognizing that they cannot  arrest their way to safer schools. Not only that, but schools are beginning to recognize that reforming overly-punitive and police centric school discipline policies will help improve academic achievement and reform the racial disparities that still exist in our public schools.

In response to allegations that African-American schoolchildren were unfairly targeted for harsh punishment, the Memphis Police and the Memphis City Schools entered into an agreement that ensures children are not arrested for minor offenses that occur on school grounds, but are instead subject to sanctions that will not interrupt their education, like community services or restitution. During the first year of this agreement, 1,000 fewer children have been imprisoned in Memphis and the city’s crime rates have significantly decreased.

Broward County Florida recently adopted a similar model in an effort to reduce the number of children arrested at school, improve its dropout rate and eliminate the achievement gap that leaves many black male children behind.

For years, families in Meridian Mississippi decried the discipline system in the public schools there for discriminating against African-American children by pushing them out of school for behavior that was overlooked when committed by white students. Finally, this year, the U.S. Department of Justice found that  Meridian Public Schools, subjected black students to “harsher consequences, including longer suspensions, than white students for comparable misbehavior, even where the students were at the same school, were of similar ages, and had similar disciplinary histories.” The school district agreed to a remedy that practically eliminates the role of law enforcement in school discipline.

Despite the positive trend of reducing the traditional “lock ’em up” police presence in schools, the federal government recently made $45 million available for new school resource officer positions around the country. If past is prologue, this influx of officers policing our public schoolchildren will result in another wave of abuse and countless children put out of school and arrested for minor misbehavior. This is not the fault of the officers. They are placed into our schools with the tools to police — not to resolve conflict or to interact with children.

But what is perhaps most disturbing is that the increased police presence won’t just cause harm to some students — there’s no evidence that it will keep any students safer. A recent report by the civil rights organization the Advancement Project notes that most school based attacks are not halted by school resource officers — but instead end with the intervention of school administrators, educators or students.

The Advancement Project report further documents that safe schools don’t result from merely posting a police officer in the halls. Instead, a truly safe school must create support networks, foster peer relationship building, provide ready access to counseling services and facilitate parental involvement. These are the kind of schools that create positive, affirming environments and use restorative justice and conflict resolution to resolve disputes that will inevitably occur.

In schools that have this sort of environment, administrators and yes, law enforcement, are able to use their relationships to anticipate and diffuse potential acts of violence. Demonstrating each day the value and worth of each student and creating a school-based, community-built on a culture of trust and mutual support — these are the most effective weapons we have to protect students from violence in our schools.

No school should add another police officer to its ranks without first adopting Advancement Project’s recommendations, taking action to evaluate its environment and reforming the ways it falls short of creating a school climate that truly facilitates student safety.

Moving forward, the U.S. Department of Justice should only provide school resource officer funding to those school districts that have taken the proactive steps to both create a culture of safety and to ensure that school resource officers receive appropriate training. Organizations like Strategies for Youth train “public safety officers in the science of child and youth development and mental health, and supports communities partnering to promote strong police/youth relationships.”

These are not the kind of reforms that are sound-bite worthy. They are the kind of reforms that will require a tremendous amount of work and commitment on behalf of the adults that work in our nation’s school districts. But they are the only kind of reforms that will produce safer schools.

Merely adding cops to schools with toxic safety climates will only create more danger for our schoolchildren. And that outcome must be avoided at all costs.


By: Shelia A. Bedi, U. S. News and World Report, December 14, 2013

December 15, 2013 Posted by | Gun Violence | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

From Memphis To Madison: A Dream For The Middle Class That Cannot Be Allowed To Die

“I Am a Man” read the sandwich board posters worn by public sanitation workers in Memphis. Their strike in 1968 came at a time when African American men were still called “boy” to their faces. Their fight for dignity, fair wages and the hope of a better future for their families drew the support of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in that city 43 years ago today.

The critical services that public employees provided in our communities then and now range from the most humble, such as garbage collectors, to the most dangerous (police officers and firefighters) to the most profoundly influential on the lives of our children. 

Yet in state after state, the collective bargaining rights of dedicated teachers and other public employees have been denied or are in serious jeopardy just as they were in the civil rights era. The same politicians pushing these laws are attacking affirmative action, assailing voting rights and pushing laws to block any path to citizenship for millions of hardworking immigrants in this country.

King made clear connections between what he called “our glorious struggle for civil rights” and collective bargaining rights. He called the labor movement “the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress . . . [and] gave birth to . . . new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life.”  

Heirs of King’s legacy who serve our communities see similarities between the struggle in Memphis then and the struggles in Madison and Columbus now.

Dian Palmer, a public health nurse in Milwaukee whose family moved to Wisconsin from Mississippi for better jobs and greater opportunity, starkly remembers the days when her family faced housing discrimination in their new home state because of the color of their skin.  

Palmer is “disgusted” by the ways that what is going on today reminds her of those times. Last month Wisconsin state legislators stripped away collective bargaining rights, wages and benefits from nurses like Palmer, teachers and other public workers and made cavalier comments about how they should all just “get over it,” she says.

Lynn Radcliffe, an administrative assistant in the Cleveland schools’ special education program, testified to Congress last month that today’s public employees are facing the same harsh treatment the Memphis sanitation workers did — “being treated as less than, disrespected and economically deprived of earning a decent wage to take care of their families.”

The powerful business interests that align today against working people hearken back to the “downtown business improvement association” that opposed justice for the striking Memphis sanitation workers. Today’s shadowy 527 groups funded by the Koch brothers and their oil conglomerate — and other bad-actor corporations and executives — would destroy our nation’s last real defense against unrestricted corporate power and Third World wages and working conditions for all. 

The Memphis city workers in 1968 tapped into the spiritual power of our common humanity — a source of power that seems to be gaining traction as people stand up for state and local workers today. A key part of King’s theology was the stranger on the Jericho road, which turned around conventional thinking about uniting with people who we perceive as not being like us.

 We saw this spirit reflected in the tens of thousands of people who rallied in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states to fight for a vibrant middle class for all workers. Protesters from all walks of life accepted King’s challenge: “The question is not, If I stop to help the [sanitation workers], what will happen to me?  The question is, If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” 

In today’s jobless recovery, people of color and women are being hit hard. As public services are cut along with collective bargaining rights, women are disproportionately among those laid off and facing income cuts.  The “underemployment” rate of discouraged and part-time workers is roughly 15 percent for whites but 25 percent for black and Hispanic workers. 

This week, at pulpits, synagogues and other locations nationwide, ordinary people will commemorate King’s death by standing together to tell the powerful interests and the politicians who carry out their wishes that enough is enough.

We are uniting to stand up for the dream of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “a tolerable life.” In today’s terms, that translates as  “a middle class life.” A path into the middle class for millions of Americans — black, white, Latino, Native American and Asian American — is not a dream that we will allow to die.

By: Benjamin Todd Jealous and Mary Kay Henry, The Washington Post, April 3, 2011

April 4, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Collective Bargaining, Congress, Corporations, Democracy, Equal Rights, Governors, Human Rights, Immigrants, Income Gap, Jobs, Labor, Middle Class, Politics, States, Union Busting, Unions, Wisconsin | , , , , | Leave a comment


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