Myths about Teachers: We Need More Police in Our Schools

Bill Ayers, Crystal Laura, Rick Ayers, February 6, 2018, Praxis Center

Public schools are plagued by gangs and fighting, assault and battery, drug dealing, and other criminal behavior, including, in extreme instances, actual shoot-outs between students. All of these hard realities demand an active and alert police presence to maintain safety, order, and discipline.

Schools must be safe havens for all kids, as well as for all school personnel. The good kids who want to learn and feel secure must be shielded from the actions of a minority of bad kids who get no discipline at home and have no respect for their classmates, the teacher, or learning itself. Suspending kids for bad behavior and sending them home may have made sense decades ago, but it’s no longer an adequate control: too often parents don’t believe in strong management and probably aren’t home anyway because the mother may be working two jobs, and in many cases the father isn’t home because he has left or is in prison.

Furthermore, teachers can’t handle the evident and imminent threats of the modern world. The incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012—the senseless murders of twenty first graders and six educators—is a cruel reminder that our most vulnerable population must be protected from unpredictable violent forces. Armed police officers at Sandy Hook could have prevented that horrific massacre.

Public schools are paid for with tax dollars. The community has a right to expect that their tax money is supporting a secure space for student learning, and students who want to learn have a right to expect a safe school and a calm classroom environment. When a disruptive student refuses to obey the rules necessary to establish a good learning environment, that student must be disciplined. If a student is told to leave class, for example, because of a disturbance, that student must comply; when a student defies the teacher’s legitimate authority, that teacher—acting legally in loco parentis— must have the ability to summon back-up.

Currently, there are more than 43,000 school-employed police—often officially referred to as “school resource officers” (SROs)—and an additional 39,000 “security guards” in the nation’s 84,000 public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Their presence in public schools is indispensable to the mission of preserving order, allowing teachers to do their jobs, and strengthening trust between young community members and the police. We need even more.


A cellphone video taken in 2015 inside a classroom at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina captured images of a white sheriff’s deputy removing a Black female student from her class. The school resource officer (SRO), a law enforcement officer, had been contacted by a teacher who’d asked for assistance in removing a student who had violated school rules by using her cellphone and refusing to leave class. The SRO grabbed the student around the head, flipped her desk over, slammed her to the floor, and dragged her out of the classroom. The graphic and disturbing video raced across social media, merging with the national focus on police force and violence deployed against youth of color, and prompted a federal civil rights investigation as well as the officer’s dismissal.

Other high (or low) lights from 2015: In Kentucky, a video caught a sheriff’s deputy handcuffing disabled children who’d failed to follow his instructions; the American Civil Liberties Union fi led suit. In North Carolina, a water-balloon fight—initiated as a high school senior-day prank—resulted in the arrest of eight students; two dozen police officers were dispatched to the campus “to restore order.” In Florida, an SRO pushed a thirteen-year-old student to the ground and violently twisted his arm; the officer was arrested and charged with child abuse. In Birmingham, Alabama, a federal judge ruled that SROs used excessive and unconstitutional force by routinely pepper-spraying students—including a pregnant student whose transgression was crying in a hallway—for small disciplinary offenses. Not surprisingly, most of the students experiencing physical violence are Black or Brown.

The beat goes on and on and on: In Virginia, a four-year-old having a temper tantrum in his pre-K classroom was handcuffed by an SRO and driven to the sheriff’s office. In Texas, a fourteen-year old named Ahmed Mohamed, who had built a homemade clock from scratch and proudly brought it to school to show friends and teachers, was detained on suspicion of making a bomb (or perhaps only of making a bomb scare) and eventually arrested and taken to a juvenile detention center. He was later cleared of any crime or criminal intent, and his family sued the school district. Federal money had already been invested in putting police and police equipment into schools weeks after the Sandy Hook school shooting, but President Obama called for an investment of an additional $150 million to put a thousand police officers in schools.

There were 26,000 violent incidents reported in 13 percent of US schools in 2013–2014. And a telling bit of information: more than 64,000 students were arrested at school in 2011–2012—the most recent federal data available—and while Black students accounted for just 16 percent of the overall student population, 30 percent of those arrested were Black. The data on school-based arrests are incomplete because the federal government has only recently begun to require schools to follow uniform reporting protocols. But the trend holds up in states with more meticulous data sets; in Florida, for example, Black students accounted for 53 percent of school-based arrests in 2013–2014 while they constituted only 23 percent of the population.

So it seems the police are not confronting armed intruders but students. Why are Black students more likely to be arrested in schools than their white counterparts? Are Black students more prone than whites to breaking the law during school hours or to committing egregious acts against their fellow students? Or is the behavior of Black teenagers viewed by school authorities through a lens of pathology and criminality?

It may not be possible to get answers by conducting a perfect experiment complete with isolated variables and control groups, but there are useful indicators all around. A dramatic and much discussed incident, for example, occurred in Decatur, Illinois, in 1999. Some young African American men got into a shoving match in the stands of a football game; it, too, was caught on video and the fight was not pretty. On the other hand, no one was hurt, and it was over in a matter of seconds. But the video had an outsized impact. As the incident played over and over in the media, it was consistently described as a “melee,” a “brawl,” and a “gang fight.” Several students were expelled from school, criminally charged and arrested.

The Reverend Jesse Jackson became deeply involved in defending the young people in Decatur and argued that school officials slapped a blanket punishment on a large group of teenagers whose involvement in the pushing and shoving incident varied as widely as their other school experiences. He also noted that a “prank” in a white suburb where a large group of teenagers acted dopey—hazing and humiliating girls as someone’s notion of a cool initiation into their senior year and landing several in the hospital—resulted in sanctions, but every student was offered a pathway beyond that sad, sorry event. A year later, each was in college and pursuing a brighter future; a year after the Decatur incident, those students were still out of school, mostly unemployed, and still paying dearly for their transgression. Words are revealing here—the use of “brawl” and “gang fight” in one case, the use of “prank” in another. Language has been under particular scrutiny in this Black Lives Matter moment.

These incidents—anecdotal but emblematic—highlight difficulties inherent in any situation where policing meets teaching or education intersects with criminal justice. Police officers most often meet a person at life’s low point—a cop’s presence is either the messenger or the proof of bad news—while teachers work with students on a higher and more hopeful plane. The emblems and tools of the trade are also distinct: books, words, and conversation for one; Kevlar vests, handcuffs, and guns for the other.

When police enter school environments and begin to mingle, disciplining students—often for behavior as innocent as a childish stunt or as mundane as a temper tantrum—schools can easily “become annexed” by law enforcement and elide the realm and influence of teachers. In 2013, 882 students were arrested in New York City public schools and 1,666 children were issued tickets—their “crimes” ranged from tagging graffiti to possession of marijuana. Interactions that might normally have been “teachable moments” were transformed into moments of fear, humiliation, and resentment by students interacting with those who have nothing to do with education.

School people, community folks, students, parents, and civil rights advocates tend to think that SROs should not be involved in student discipline, and yet, in our experience, security personnel are quite routinely involved in discipline matters. This has led to the criminalization of typical teenage behavior, as well as the discriminatory enforcement of ill-defined rules and laws. And teachers have begun to worry about the excessive use of physical force against children in school spaces where they should be able to feel safe. Those encounters mean that the first experiences many Black and Brown students have with the police is in a school building—it’s where many learn to fear police, and it’s where some enter the criminal justice system, feeding the school-to-prison pipeline.

When Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old out playing in a city park, was set upon and immediately shot dead by Cleveland police, he was described as “menacing” and “in an adult body.” When Mike Brown, eighteen years old, was shot and killed by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, the officer said that Brown appeared unstoppable, like “Hulk Hogan.” When Sandra Bland, a twenty-eightyear-old Black woman was stopped for “failing to signal when changing lanes,” roughed up, threatened, and later found dead in a county jail cell, the trooper who initiated the confrontation described her as “defiant” and “resistant.” And when Eric Garner was confronted in New York City for participating in the informal economy by selling “loosies,” he, too, was described as “defiant” as he was put into an illegal choke hold, piled on by police officers, and recorded desperately pleading, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” until he lost consciousness and died.

What is it about the word “defiance,” or the word applied selectively: defiant young people, or defiant Black teens? According to school and police authorities, the young woman attacked in her classroom at Spring Valley High School was responsible for initiating the episode with her “defiance.” The deputy sheriff was fi red after the video of his assault went viral, but the misdemeanor charge against the student was pursued because she had not been compliant enough.

At a time of corporate-style reform, high-stakes testing gone wild, and unprecedented levels of regimentation, order and predictability stand as proxies for teaching and learning. Furthermore, rigid routine and detachment from the messiness of real teaching and learning seem like predictable ways to keep your job (and sanity), as teachers are pushed to create quiet classrooms and obedient students at the expense of thoughtful and actively engaged students.

Some communities are calling for explicitly limiting SROs’ activities in schools—we ourselves think that if police are to be placed in the schools, they should be required to teach something valuable like knitting or handicrafts—while others are calling for the abolition of the police altogether. In May 2016, after a long organizing campaign and a mass community mobilization, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the School Police Department (SPD)—a force of five hundred officers and staff—became the first government agencies to return all military grade weapons to the Department of Defense granted through the “Excess Military Equipment Program,” or the 1033 program, which has been arming police departments all over the United States.

After withdrawing from the program altogether and providing a complete inventory of every weapon received and returned, LAUSD and SPD issued a public apology to the Black and Latinx students and communities whose lives were threatened by the program. In particular, they returned one tank, one mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicle, three grenade launchers, and sixty-one M-16 rifles.

In addition to the weapons accrued by the SPD, the DOD 1033 program had awarded the Los Angeles Police Department with more than 1,600 M-16 assault rifles, a military truck, a military cargo plane, and a helicopter, and the LA Sheriff had assembled more than a thousand M-16 assault rifles, two tanks, and sixty-two mine detectors. But organizers had started their work with schools because they were already engaged in campaigns to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. For instance, organizers from the Labor/Community Strategy Center had overturned a Daytime Curfew Law, which had resulted in thirty-eight thousand tickets being issued to Black and Latinx students for “truancy.” And to eliminate the offense of “willful defiance”—which they had argued was a thinly veiled code to allow disciplinary actions against Black boys— they had also passed a “School Climate Bill of Rights.”

These activists argued that the expansion and militarization of urban policing was designed from the start to lock up Black and Latinx youth for jaywalking, marijuana and alcohol possession, “resisting arrest,” “parole violation,” disorderly conduct, and  loitering—virtual reenactments of the Black codes that followed the abolition of slavery. They argued that police expansion and increased armed force against unarmed communities was a form of colonial control and the antithesis of the interventions needed to support communities—housing, jobs, mental health clinics, health care, vibrant schools, and a dramatic reduction in police. Many communities are now mobilizing to move the police out of the public schools—and to demand that they keep their hands, batons, and cuffs off our children.

SROs are not equipped or trained to do this kind of work.

Teachers, at their best, are expert at this kind of social and emotional interaction. The fundamental problem plays out in myriad ways depending on concentric circles of context—history and culture, class and race, gender, economic condition and sense of agency—but it boils down to this: good teaching is personal, and it’s built carefully, over time, on a base of care, mutual regard, trust, and dialogue, while policing is impersonal and objective, a fast-moving monologue. Both exercise authority, of course, but the teacher’s authority at its best is earned through day-to-day practice, while the police officer’s is recognized as an external fact.

Whatever else is taught or learned, “learning to live together” is the subtitle of an essential curriculum, sometimes hidden but occasionally intentional. “Learning to live together” might involve instruction in respect, for example, and fellow-feeling, not as a lecture typically but as a response to actual events in the day-today interactions of classroom life. Learning to live together cannot be reduced to the arid concept of “classroom management”—the management model assumes applying a set of techniques to control people in order to hurriedly get to the real lessons, but learning to live together is the lesson.

We might practice listening to one another, or speaking forcefully and persuasively, or on occasion taking care of one another. When someone dominates the space, we might consciously help that person offer a bit of space to others; when someone holds back consistently, we might search out a suitable stage and spotlight. When someone is angry we might help find an appropriate expression and outlet; when someone is struggling to understand, we might offer coaching and support. Whatever the instance or the circumstance, and for better or for worse, these early experiences of community and connection offer templates, frameworks, and lessons for life.

And learning to live together—in a family, a classroom, or a larger community—always involves contradiction and conflict, as it is a normal, natural part of community life. To habitually send someone to the office disrupts the field of learning; calling the cops blows the field to bits. These are places where the wise teacher or parent finds the richest and most fertile ground for teaching life’s deepest and most abiding lessons.

In classrooms across the country, teachers are learning to implement restorative justice practices, allowing the community to come together, identify problems and wrongs that have been committed, and devise ways to make the community whole again. Further, these classrooms begin to explore possibilities of transformative or liberatory justice—a practice of justice that does not isolate a student transgression as a “crime” but instead explores the social context, the reasons such a violation occurred in the first place. This is the longer, harder work of making community work and getting to the bottom of social ruptures.

Black educator Jawanzaa Kunjufu argues, “You cannot teach a child you do not love. You cannot teach a child you do not respect. You cannot teach a child you do not understand.” These are critical elements necessary for the creation of safe and productive learning environments. And this kind of intimacy means giving a damn, and worrying about what happens to people in their everyday lives, not bringing in armed and uniformed men to control and intimidate our kids.

Excerpted from “You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones!” And 18 Other Myths About Teachers, Teachers’ Unions, and Public Education by William Ayers, Crystal Laura, and Rick Ayers (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

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