Policing as Racial Violence in Schools

Back in late October 2015, several videos taken from students’ cell phones of a white South Carolina police officer violently disciplining a Black female student for being disruptive in class went viral. In the videos, the police officer tells the student that she needs to leave her seat or he will forcibly remove her. Then, the officer proceeds to wrap his arm around her neck, which then results in the student’s desk flipping backwards to the ground. The officer then proceeds to drag the student to the front of the classroom to handcuff her in front of her peers. At the time of the incident, the public was outraged over what they saw in the videos and the officer was subsequently fired from his job. The media attention this video received made it impossible to ignore the link between racism and policing in schools, and sparked more public conversation on the issue of the physical and psychological violence and humiliation students of color experience when they are arrested in front of their peers (see Fausset, Perez-Pena, & Blinder, 2015). Unfortunately, the racial violence in this video is not an isolated incident as there are numerous examples covered by the news, and even in the research, where students of color voice their experiences of being arrested by police in school, such as getting slammed against tables and walls while handcuffed, being fingerprinted, and even getting their mugshots taken (Corley, 2018).

Based on the 2015-16 Civil Rights Data Collection (U.S. Department of Education, 2018), Black students only represented 15% of overall student enrollment, but 31% of students arrested at school or referred to law enforcement. Thus, Black students are twice as likely as white students to be referred to law enforcement or arrested in school (U.S. GAO, 2018). Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander students are the only other racial or ethnic subgroup nationally with a slight school discipline disproportionality, representing 0.4 % of overall enrollment, but 1% of all students arrested at school. Similarly, Finn and Servoss (2014) found that Black students were more likely to be enrolled in schools that used high levels of security. Moreover, Black students that attend schools with high levels of security and policing, when controlling for students’ misbehavior and school characteristics, were twice (odds ratio = 2.3) as likely as white students to be suspended. Furthermore, Black students had the highest suspension rates out of any racial or ethnic group. However, the differences between suspensions of Black and white students in low security schools was not statistically significant even when controlling or not controlling for student misbehavior. These findings suggest that schools with lower levels of policing and surveillance perhaps treat Black students more equitably.

Furthermore, educators’ racial biases can negatively influence their assessment of students’ of color misbehaviors. Using a sample of children born between 1998 and 2000 in 20 U.S. cities with populations over 200,000, Owens and McLanahan (2019) found that racial differences in behavior represented only a small fraction of disparity in discipline. However, it was teachers’ differential treatment of Black and white students that made up 46% of the racial gap in suspension and expulsions for five- to nine-year-old students. In contrast, 21% of the racial gap could be explained by the difference in the school characteristics that Black and white students primarily attend, and differences in student behavior comprised only 9% of the racial gap. As one of the researchers, Jayani Owens, explained in an interview highlighting the study’s findings:

Not only were Black children more likely to be suspended, but these racial differences were happening in the same schools...It shows that the categories that teachers use for punishment, like “defiance”, “disrespect” and “noncompliance” are ripe for racial discrimination. What does it mean to be disrespectful? It would be easy for a teacher to read the behavior of a kid as disrespectful when it may not have been intended that way...The idea that you can have two kids of different races misbehaving in similar ways and receiving different forms of punishment—one gets a slap on the wrist, say, and the other gets suspended—is a really important thing to understand socially...Subconsciously, we all have racial biases in different ways. This is one way in which those biases are manifesting in the classroom.

(The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 2019, par. 4-5)

Indeed, educators are not race-neutral—their racial biases weigh heavily on how they treat students of color.

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