All children deserve to go to school and feel safe and supported. During a regular school year, we all ride the bus, walk, or carpool to school and spend the day filing in and out of different classrooms, joking with our friends in the hallways, imagining what we’ll end up doing on the weekend. However, as Black and brown children, our school days also involve the anxiety and fear that we are being carefully watched. A fear that follows us from our communities to our schools.
As soon as we arrive, we see the cop cars parked in the parking lots. We don’t feel safe. We are constantly nervous that any little mistake we make will be the reason we are confronted and deemed criminals by the police officers monitoring the halls of our school, a place that’s supposed to take care of us and nourish our minds. This is why “getting to know” the officers in our schools isn’t the solution -- if they don’t make us safe in our neighborhoods, why would they make us feel safe in our schools?
Since the Black Lives Matter movement came back to the nation’s attention this summer, students and community members across the country have been fighting for police-free schools so that students like me are able to prosper and grow without the looming threat of violence and incarceration.
I am a youth organizer with Tenants and Workers United, and we’ve been fighting to improve the conditions in our school system. We’ve listened to each others’ stories and come to the conclusion that most of us feel unsafe and uncomfortable in our learning environments because the presence of School Resource Officers weighs so heavily on our minds. We feel we can’t move through our schools freely without SROs assuming we are up to no good. We’ve experienced situations where officers pull students out of class for being distracted, but isn’t an armed officer physically handling one of our classmates and taking them away more disruptive to our academic success and mental health?
Some of us even attended George Washington Middle School when the SRO on site accidentally discharged a weapon inside our school, a mistake that can easily endanger someone in stressful situations. The fact that they are armed in the first place is very disturbing to us. We know for a fact that SROs are only required to have two months of training, yet we are supposed to trust our lives in their hands? This is why we, as youth of color, feel it is important to speak out about this issue that is directly affecting us.
We have spoken to school board members, city council members, our superintendent and even Mayor Wilson.
We’ve researched and found that youth of color are suspended from schools at disproportionately higher levels compared to our white classmates, which often leads to involving the police. For example, in the 2017-2018 school year, 18% of out-of-school suspensions involved law enforcement referrals. Because of these numbers, we’ve fought to implement restorative justice practices as alternatives to suspensions that would give us the opportunity to be heard, understood, and given chances to grow instead of being pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline. However, it makes no sense for us to have to ask for more resources and funding for restorative justice practices, when SROs will continue to criminalize us.
This is why we fully believe that the only way the school board will ensure Black and brown youth are given a chance to a healthy, successful academic career will be by ending the school-to-prison pipeline by voting to not partner with Alexandria Police.
If ACPS really wants to create and maintain safe and healthy schools, they should invest in proper training for our counselors, social workers, and teachers and provide other resources that actually effectively nurture our lives. Renewing or only slightly changing the contract with Alexandria police will only continue the harm already being done to youth of color like ourselves. The ACPS school board has the power to end their contract with Alexandria Police and they should, because our schools should be for education not criminalization. Fund our futures, not our trauma.
Abenaa Buabeng is a youth organizer with Tenants and Workers United, an organization that builds power in low-income, immigrant communities of color to improve the quality of lives in Northern Virginia.