Young People Are Leading the Growing Movement for Police-Free Schools

In this moment of transformative possibility, amid activists’ growing calls to defund and abolish the police, young people across the country are leading a movement to remove police officers from schools. They are demanding that city and school district leaders reallocate funding for police into services and resources for students, including counseling, social workers and restorative justice programming.

The movement for police-free schools has a long history of Black youth leading this fight as a key strategy to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, a process of funneling predominately Black and Latinx students out of schools and into the juvenile legal system.

Minneapolis Public School student Nathaniel Genene talked about this decades-long struggle to remove police from schools in an interview with The Nation. “I think it’s important to point out that this has been a generational struggle. We’ve had cops in schools since the ’60s,” Genene said. “So, this movement definitely did not start last week. And groups today such as Young People’s Action Coalition [YPAC], Our Turn, and Youth Out Loud have been working on this issue for some time.”

The week of June 22 saw a National Week of Action to support youth organizers in their fight for police-free schools. Black youth and other youth of color led daily actions across the country, including marches, calling school board members, creating and encouraging supporters to sign petitions, and providing virtual political education events. There have been some victories in response.

On July 7, Phoenix Union Superintendent Chad Gaston announced that the school district will not renew its agreement for school resource officers with Phoenix police for the 2020-2021 school year.

Although the Chicago Public School Board voted against terminating its contract with the Chicago Police Department, local school councils have until August 14 to vote on whether to remove police officers from campus. Of the eight councils that have voted so far, Benito Juarez Community Academy and Northside College Prep voted to remove officers.

“This issue is important to me because it affects me, being Latino [and] likely to be led through the school-to-prison pipeline. I’ve experienced firsthand how this feels,” Joseeduardo Ramos-Valdez, a youth leader with the Puente Youth Movement, told Truthout.

The Puente Youth Movement is a youth-led program that works to fight the school-to-prison pipeline in Phoenix and Central Arizona through the Youth Leadership Program and #CopsOuttaCampus campaign.

“Cops do not make me feel safe at all, and I hate how we have to check ourselves to make sure we’re not acting ‘wrong’ when we are just being ourselves. Cops give me anxiety,” Ramos-Valdez said.

The rise in the 1990s of “zero-tolerance” discipline policies in public schools across the country led to a reliance on police in schools, and suspensions and expulsions to address behavioral issues that were once handled by teachers and other school staff. The violence of policing in schools manifests as both anti-Black violence and gender-based violence.

In a 2015 report from the African American Policy Forum, U.S. Department of Education data was presented that showed that while Black boys were suspended three times more than white boys in the 2011-12 school year, Black girls were six times more likely to be suspended than white girls. Police in schools have also led to the violent treatment of students. For instance, on January 29, 2019, a 16-year-old high school student on Chicago’s West Side was shocked with a Taser in school by a school resource officer after being removed from class for pulling out her cellphone.

Incidents like this, and the fact that although Black students account for 36 percent of Chicago Public Schools’ students they accounted for 66 percent of police notifications, have spurred organizing to remove police from schools. Youth organizers in the #PoliceFreeSchools Coalition demanded that the Chicago Board of Education end Chicago Public Schools’ $33 million contract with the Chicago Police Department (CPD), and reallocate those funds to counseling and other youth services. A youth-led direct action included protesting outside of Chicago Board of Education President Miguel Del Valle’s home on June 24, the morning where the seven-member Board voted 4-3 to not end CPD’s contract.

Chicago Public Schools student Essence Gatheright expressed her frustration with the vote. “We need more people who are willing to side with youth, who are willing [to] genuinely see us,” Gatheright told ABC 7 Chicago.

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, student activists in organizations such as the Black Liberation Project, Youth Out Loud and the Young Muslim Collective have for years attended school board meetings and organized rallies demanding the school board to end their contract with the police department. Their committed activism led to the Minneapolis Public School Board voting unanimously for a resolution to end the district’s contract with the police department on June 2.

In this moment when bold abolitionist demands are being heard and considered by cities and school districts, youth are leading the fight for police-free schools and a police-free society. Kysani London, a member of Chicago Public School Alumni for Abolition who organized a protest at Northside College Prep to pressure the local school council to remove school resource officers, connected the police-free-schools movement to the broader police abolition movement. “Right now, the small-scale police-free-school work that we’re engaging in can — in some ways — be seen as one of the first dominoes to fall in a series in the move for police abolition.… We, along with numerous other national organizations, are helping to push the door ajar for radical change surrounding the concept of policing,” London told Liberation News.

These intensified campaigns have come amid a broader movement for defunding police. Thanks to these efforts, a veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council announced their intent to disband the city’s police department and replace it with an alternative system of public safety, and other city governments, such as Los Angeles, New York City and Philadelphia, have expressed support for decreasing or opposing increases in city police budgets. Youth organizers are showing us that the movement for police-free schools, which has been building for decades, is a key component of the vision for a world beyond policing.