Excessive Force Is a Problem in Schools, Too

When I ask a parent what’s important to them in a school for their child, the number one answer is almost always the same: Safety.

Parents worry about safety everywhere – in the home, in the neighborhood, and most certainly in schools.

What happens when students aren’t safe in school? And when the harm comes not from other students but from adults who are specifically charged with keeping children safe?

Over the past few years, we’ve been confronted with terrifying examples of how African American men aren’t always safe in the hands of law enforcement officers. Episodes of excessive force have become outrageously commonplace. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, among others, have disturbed our national conscience and prompted serious questions about how to balance public safety with civilian rights.

But let’s not fool ourselves – these issues exist in schools too.

This week, two Baltimore school police officers were charged after one of them was captured on video striking a teenager repeatedly. There are so many disturbing things about this incident that I’m not quite sure where to start. As just one example, school officials didn’t seem to know whether the young man was enrolled at the school. (He was.)

It’s easy to say this is an outlier case – possibly a poorly trained officer who made a terrible, one-time mistake. But it’s not an isolated example.

Just last year, another Baltimore school security employee pled guilty to assaulting three middle school students. Once again, the encounter was captured on video. Though it’s hard to watch, it almost needs to be seen to be believed. In it, an adult officer chases after a fleeing young woman and strikes her repeatedly with a baton.

This is just one city – and it’s nothing new. About 15 years ago, I was teaching middle school in Baltimore just down the street from where one of these recent incidents occurred. There were problems back then, too, just fewer smartphones.

As a parent, I struggle to think about how I would respond if my own children were involved in one of these situations. It seems so far-fetched and ridiculous that an adult would lay hands on a child who poses no threat to anyone. I’d be angry beyond belief. Any parent would be.

Let’s forget about my own reaction. How would students themselves respond? Not just the students on the receiving end of the abuse, but those who witnessed the incident. Will they ever feel truly safe in school again? Will they ever trust law enforcement officials? I doubt it. I don’t think I would.

We need to take action. To start, there should be much clearer guidelines for school safety officers, better training, and stronger supervision. Anybody whose job is to keep students safe at school ought to be able to do that job well, with high standards, good judgment, and a profound sense of responsibility. Anyone who breaks the rules should be held accountable.

When abuse of this kind does occur, we also need better ways to address it and restore trust with the children who are affected by it. Who’s talking to the kids in those videos now? What systems are in place to repair the damage they’ve experienced and re-engage them with their work at school? Who’s helping all their peers process what happened and begin rebuilding their own confidence in law enforcement? Too often, the answer is “no one.”

This has to change, and parents have a right to demand it. Every day, in so many different ways, they trust schools with their children’s lives. Every school should be as safe as they want it to be.

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