Earlier this week during a meeting of the after-school program I facilitate in Providence’s Hope High School, I witnessed a fascinating debate between a group of students. I think it was very illuminating, and so I wanted to try to recreate the conversation as best as I can.
The topic was the role of police inside schools. The discussion began when one student questioned the propriety of cops carrying loaded weapons around Hope. “They’re walking around with guns like this is some army base or something while we’re in our classrooms, trying to learn algebra,” she said. “We’re not criminals.”
Another student disagreed. “They need weapons in case something happens,” he said.
“Like what?” a couple folks shot back.
“Well…in case someone else with a gun comes in.”
Everyone thought about that for a while. Someone asked, “Can anyone remember that ever happening at Hope?” A couple rumors, maybe, but nobody in the group could remember that having actually happened.
The first young woman piped up again, asking her friends, “Do you think they have cops with guns at Moses Brown?”—referring to a beautiful private school that sits just across the street from Hope High School but feels like a whole world away. “No way.”
At this point I had to jump in. “You know, not only do they not have cops with guns at Moses Brown; they don’t have police there at all. And while they’re a private school, I’d be willing to bet that there aren’t the same police-to-student ratios in suburban public schools like those in Barrington or East Greenwich.”
“Yeah, and I bet they’ve got a full-time nurse there, too,” the young woman added.
“Hope doesn’t have a full-time nurse? For over a thousand students?” I asked.
“Nope. We have to share one with another school or two. So if you get sick or hurt or something and go to the nurse’s office, sometimes there’s someone there and sometimes there’s not.”
“So you have how many cops here every day…”
“Four cops here every day, but no full-time nurse?”
“That’s right,” everyone agreed.
I then asked the group what they thought of this situation, and we went on to have a really great discussion about it. But instead of repeating that dialogue here, I wanted to ask readers the same question—what do you think of a system that places four police in a school but doesn’t provide even one full-time nurse?
I’m sure folks will have a diversity of opinions on this one, but in my view, this mismatch offers proof of a pretty crazy ordering of priorities we have in this country when it comes to dealing with students, particularly low-income students of color. And it’s problematic for several reasons. First of all, it’s a really poor allocation of resources—I don’t know how one can argue that students require constant surveillance by law enforcement more than they require the availability of medical attention, and I can guarantee that if a sick or hurt student in an affluent suburban school asked for the nurse’s help and was told there was no nurse, there would be an uproar and the problem would be corrected.
But the current set of affairs is actually far more damaging than just an ineffective use of scarce resources. I’ve met several of Hope’s police officers, and found them all to be really good guys. But the fact remains that they are police, and a police presence causes certain well-documented psychological effects. Anyone who has ever been driving and seen a cop car out of the rear-view mirror knows what I’m talking about: even if you’re an excellent driver and are doing absolutely nothing wrong, you feel a little nervous and uncomfortable until the cop car passes you or turns. And young people of color in Rhode Island—who, studies have shown, are twice as likely to be wrongly stopped by police as white Rhode Islanders—often feel this discomfort even more strongly.
But even more problematic than making school an uncomfortable place for students is the message that this constant armed police presence sends to the young people in our urban districts. What we’re essentially telling these students is that they are suspect. By treating them like potential criminals, we are broadcasting to them an assumption that they are criminals, that they are deviants who need to be under unremitting surveillance at all times. This assumption is degrading and demoralizing, and it takes an incredible amount of energy and willpower for students to ignore it. For some young people, the challenge is too great, and eventually they, too, begin to believe this insulting assumption about themselves. Others keep their heads high, but still, they are forced to confront their supposed criminality every day when all they are trying to do is get an education.
In no way is this an attack against police—the men and women of law enforcement have incredibly important jobs. But they don’t belong in our public schools. The young people who fill Providence’s classrooms are students, not criminals, and at the very least they deserve to be treated as such.