This fall, many students across the country expect to finally return to their school buildings for full-time, in-person learning. This is a huge relief for lots of kids and parents. But given the unprecedented trauma we’ve just lived through, it’s also a challenge for elected leaders because it’s more important than ever that every school is a safe haven. For all students, but especially for Black and brown students, that means making schools police-free.
It’s impossible to overstate the hardship working families have experienced this year. New York City, where one of us is running for office and the other is in high school, is no exception. Hunger — particularly child hunger — was projected at its highest point in decades during the pandemic. Many parents were working double and triple shifts to stave off eviction and homelessness. New York City’s uneven broadband infrastructure meant that thousands of students did not (and still don't) have internet access at home, and the city failed to distribute working laptops to thousands more, making remote learning that much harder. And, as ever, Black, brown, and immigrant neighborhoods experienced some of the most severe impacts of these hardships and failures — the same neighborhoods where essential workers put in overtime shifts to care for their neighbors while shouldering the highest COVID-19 hospitalization and death rates and often the highest rates of unemployment and evictions too.
Young people have not escaped any of this pain. As a youth leader and student in Brooklyn, Alex has played an enormous role in helping their family weather the crisis, just like many of their peers. So many of their classmates, a lot of whom come from working-class or low-income families, are not only handling their own schoolwork but also managing younger siblings’ remote schooling, taking on weekend side gigs, and even completing benefit applications for guardians who do not speak English. These students are living through a pandemic without a chance to experience the social and emotional comfort that can come with in-person learning. They’re in desperate need of extra support, whether it's counseling, social work, or tutoring. But that support is difficult to find, if it even exists, because, instead of paying for the resources and personnel that actually help students grow and learn, New York City is spending nearly $450 million on school police.
Long before the pandemic hit, school policing in New York City was a massive waste of finite public funding and deeply harmful to students of color in all five boroughs. Black and brown youth are arrested at hugely disproportionate rates compared with their white peers, subject to nearly 90% or more of all school arrests in several recent years, according to New York Police Department data. These are the same children from the communities of color that have been plagued by racist policing and the criminalization of poverty — communities where police do not represent or advance safety, but too often embody state-sponsored brutality, incarceration, and even murder.
It's no surprise, then, that school police do not make students feel safer. In a recent survey of students across New York City, conducted by the Urban Youth Collaborative, far more respondents said friends and teachers made them feel safe at school than those who said the same of police. In fact, nearly one-third had experienced targeted enforcement by an agent based on their race, gender identity, or sexual orientation. Similar experiences are frequently reported in cities nationwide, including Oregon, New Jersey, and Nevada.
Meanwhile, the resources that we know promote stability and safety are in perpetually short supply. Alex’s guidance counselor is so booked that they’ve delayed making an appointment, hoping that by doing so they can make room for others with bigger problems. They and their friends across the city commiserate over sharing broken computers and calculators, learning from overworked teachers in overcrowded rooms, and using torn, secondhand textbooks.
The NYC school policing budget could instead fund school resources that actually serve students, such as more guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, and teachers, as well as functional technology and resources for families. Alex has dozens of creative ideas for what $450 million could do for their school, from a bin of free school supplies for low-income students to healthier lunches to restorative-justice and youth-empowerment programming. These nonpunitive investments would foster school safety without feeding into the school-to-prison pipeline. This shift would create a positive chain reaction, increasing students’ success rates and promoting health and safety in their broader communities.
None of these ideas are new. Students have been advocating for years, in New York City and nationally, to invest in counselors, not cops. It’s past time for elected officials to not only listen to young people but to meaningfully account for their needs when making decisions. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council have the opportunity to do so right now, in the form of the final budget due at the end of this month. They must divert the bloated $450 million school policing budget to pay for resources that truly support students. Meanwhile, New York can provide training and noncarceral job opportunities for current school police, the majority of whom are women of color, according to the president of the union that represents them. This is a fundamental component of ending the school-to-prison pipeline.
In the meantime, there’s a whole new generation of New York City Council candidates — over 80 of them — who are unafraid to reimagine real safety for schools and stand with the young students of color who have been fighting for police-free schools. As a candidate and as a student, we’re proud to stand with them. The time for transformative safety and justice in schools is right now.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue