One of my earliest elementary school memories is the day a police officer came to my fifth grade classroom. I was sitting in the front row, and the gun in his belt was right in front of my face. I remember his blue uniform, white skin, thin sunglasses and short, cropped hair. I don’t remember exactly what he said to us or for how long he stayed, but I do remember him showing us the mug shots of long-time drug abusers and then immediately taking out and brandishing his gun.
By the time I reached middle school, police presence was a regular, although distressing, presence for me and the majority of my peers. Before the gentrification of my neighborhood in Oakland, CA began and city authorities removed the bus stop in front of my house, police regularly cruised down my street, blaring their sirens for seemingly no reason at groups of children idling or playing outside. A police car was always parked outside of the high school a block from my house and also in front of the continuing school a few blocks further away. I was used to hearing gunshots at recess and having to practice “red dot drills,” or lockdown protocols, every week.
Police presence on school campuses is not a new phenomenon for elementary, middle and high school students, notably for those of us who grew up in working-class and urban areas. Authorities insist that police presence serves to deter crime and maintain safety on school campuses, particularly in a time of increased violence on school campuses. Schools faced 279 violent incidents in the 2017-2018 school year, a dramatic increase from the 131 incidents filed the previous year (USA Today, “There were nearly 1,300 more threats made at U.S. schools this past year, report finds,” 08.14.2018).
The most common acts of violence include the presence of a gun on school campuses, followed by shootings and foiled attacks. President Donald Trump himself voices his support of arming teachers to somehow prevent school shootings. However, militarizing schools and turning them into sites of state-sanctioned violence, surveillance and policing that rely on prison-related technologies—such as metal detectors and video cameras—further aggravates the problem of violence in schools.
Underfunded schools rely on police rather than teachers or administrators to discipline students. According to the Urban Institute, more than two-thirds of high school students attend a school with a police officer present. Its report also states, “Students attending high schools that have substantial shares of black or Hispanic students attend schools with a police officer at higher rates than students attending schools with few black and Hispanic students.” (Urban Institute, “The prevalence of police officers in US schools,” 06.21.2018).
By connecting police presence with that of students of color, this study exhibits a de facto preconception that crime is more likely to occur in schools with high numbers of students of color, even though most school shootings are conducted by white males (Statistica, “Number of school shootings in the United States between 1982 and November 2018 by shooter’s race and ethnicity,” 11.19.2018).
There is no proof that police officers’ presence in schools decreases crime on campuses or improves student behavior in any way. In fact, a 2013 study found that with more police officers on campus, schools record more weapons and drug crimes and report more non-serious violent incidents (Urban Institute). Rather than make schools safe, police presence on school campuses normalizes guns, surveillance, profiling and punishment, and instills in students a fear of authority. Similar to Foucault’s theory of Panopticism, which details how institutions use surveillance and discipline to assert their power and preemptively deter “crime,” many of my friends back home referenced their experiences with police in and outside of middle and high schools as the beginnings of their anxiety around police and other carceral apparatuses.
Additionally, schools tend to prioritize the elimination of drugs and other illicit materials from campuses over the privacy and security of their students. Friends from multiple schools in my area have recalled stories of authorities entering campus with drug dogs to search students’ lockers without their permission.
In many instances, students were expelled or arrested merely for the presence of drugs in their lockers. According to the ACLU, “[F]ederal courts have found that students’ Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures do not always apply in a public school setting” (ACLU, “Search and Seizure in Public Schools”). Militarized police presences in schools combined with strip searches, racial profiling and surveillance trains young people, particularly the young urban working class and people of color, for incarceration.
Although youth incarceration rates continue to decrease, the United States still imprisons more young people than any other country (ACLU, “Youth Incarceration”). A majority of these children, adolescents and teenagers are victims and survivors of the school-to-prison pipeline. Students with learning disabilities and those living through poverty or abuse are particularly vulnerable to disproportionate policing. Instead of nurturing these students, authorities force young people into a carceral system that punishes them for social and economic circumstances over which they have no control.
I am by no means attempting to provide a comprehensive study of police and military technology in schools. Scholars and activists dedicate their entire lives to studying this phenomenon. Modern-day abolitionists and affiliated organizations, such as Angela Davis’ Critical Resistance and Miss Major’s Transgender Gender Variant Intersex Justice Project, strive to dismantle carceral structures and create rehabilitative, restorative and transformative alternatives in our lives. However, I intend to challenge the established views of the carceral logics within schools, encourage Vassar students to research and reflect on the carceral presences in their lives and urge people to reimagine a world wherein individuals, particularly young students, are not criminalized for their identities and actions.