A new survey of more than 600 middle and high school students across four states finds that 41 percent feel “very unsafe” or “unsafe” when they see police officers at their public schools. One-third said they feel targeted by police based on an aspect of their identity, such as race, primary language, sexual orientation or gender identity, and students reported bullying and sexual harassment by police at multiple public schools.
When asked what does make them feel safe at school, students overwhelming said “teachers” and “friends,” and more than two-thirds said police should be removed from school altogether. Only 16 percent of students said police make them feel safe. Corrine Blake, a 9th grader in New York City and youth leader with the Urban Youth Collaborative, which conducted the survey locally, said the findings make her feel “disgusted and angry” at the system.
“These are the experiences of young children and teenagers across the country, yet it feels personal because they reflect how I feel,” Blake said in a statement. “At school, police don’t make me feel safe; instead, they make me feel like I did something wrong.”
The in-depth survey of recent and current students of public schools in Oregon, New York, Nevada and New Jersey reveals broad support for the student-led movement to remove police from schools and increase funding for teachers, student programming and mental health supports. Activists are relatedly fighting to end the school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to policies and practices that isolate students and color, LGBTQ students, immigrants and students with disabilities from supportive learning environments and instead funnels them toward the criminal legal system. This puts students at risk of being incarcerated, or in the case of undocumented students, deported or separated from family members.
Redirecting funding from police departments to education and social programs is also a longstanding goal of the movement for Black lives that has inspired nationwide protests against the over-policing of communities of color. Of the students surveyed who report seeing cops at school, 50 precent said they have seen police interrupt learning to remove students from the classroom, and one in five reported that the cops verbally harass or make fun of students. Alarmingly, students reported sexual harassment by police in three of the four local areas surveyed, and more than a quarter said they have seen students arrested at school.
Of the students who reported a police presence at school, 32 percent said they saw police at school on a daily basis and 95 percent said they see cops at least once a month. Students also reported frequent interactions with security guards; 30 percent of Black students said they interact with security guards on a daily basis. Metal detectors are more common at majority Black and Brown schools, and students of color were more likely to be searched and have belongings taken by police or security guards than white students.
In the Las Vegas school district of Clark County, more than a quarter of students reported that they or someone they know has been pepper sprayed by police at school. School police in the district made headlines after using pepper spray in response to fights between students in recent years, with dozens of students and faculty pepper-sprayed in one high-profile incident.
“Whenever I walk by an officer, I hold my breath, take my hands out of my pocket, and try to stand up straight. I’m scared,” said Desiree Reyes, a junior in high school and a youth member of Make the Road Nevada, in a statement. “Now I know half of the young people in our district probably feel the same way.”
Schoolyard fights can be used to justify the presence of police in schools, but when asked what they would like to see more of in school, students overwhelmingly chose additional resources and supports for students and teachers over police and security. For example, 78 percent said they would like to see better “mental health” supports and youth-led programs dedicated to increasing access to college, while only 8 percent said they would like more police.
The survey was conducted by students and community groups that support the movement to remove police from schools and focused largely on diverse public schools located in urban and suburban areas. Schools where at least 75 percent of students are Black are more likely to have police officers and on-site security than schools where a majority of students are white, according to federal civil rights data. Many students know that Black and Indigenous adults and teens and transgender women, for example, are more likely to be targeted, brutalized and even killed by police outside of school.
Nationally, reams of data show that students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately referred to police or arrested while at school, and Black students are more than twice as likely as white students to be disciplined by cops, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Students with disabilities are more than three times as likely to be sent to or arrested by the police, a disparity that is much wider in some states. A study conducted in New Orleans during the 2018-2019 school year found that only 40 percent of Black students said they felt safer around police at school compared to 69 percent of white students.
“What did we do to deserve police in our schools?” Blake said. “We deserve supports and resources, not police.”
Racial justice experts say students of color have always been systematically excluded from learning and marginalized at schools and universities, reflecting the deeply entrenched racism and white supremacy in education going back decades. Civil rights groups argue that students with disabilities as well as Black, Indigenous and other students of color often have to attend public schools with fewer resources, accommodations for students with disabilities and supports for staff, making teachers more likely to call on police to deal with behavioral problems.
The survey also found that 56 percent students who say their school is majority Black report going to through metal detectors on a daily basis, which can make school feel more like a jail. Among the students who have metal detectors in their schools, 34 percent of Black students report that their belongings have been confiscated compared to 14 percent of white students. Black and Latinx students were also more likely to have been asked to remove their shoes to be searched than white students.
Kate Terenzi, a policy and campaign strategist at the Center for Popular Democracy, said hundreds of stories collected from students show that education for Black and Brown youth is constantly interrupted by the “police state,” with metal detectors, surveillance cameras and cops controlling how students move through school buildings. This reflects our society at large.
“We see that at every level of government, at the state, federal and local levels, millions, even billions of dollars are going to criminalizing people rather than supporting or educating them,” Terenzi said in an interview. “Schools should be safe places to be…. All of those investments that young people are asking for shouldn’t be revolutionary.”
“We need police-free schools,” Reyes said.