By YAZMIN BENNETT-KELLY
Editor’s Note: On October 24th, the Pittsburgh Public Schools Board voted down the proposal to arm the district’s police force. We feel the article below retains it’s relevance as an argument against arming school police officers.
On October 1st, 2018, Chief George Brown of the Pittsburgh Public Schools police asked the district’s policy committee to allow school officers to carry firearms. “I want to stop whatever’s coming from the outside from coming inside,” Chief Brown said. “We’re trying to keep the streets out of our schools, so our kids can sit down, laugh, joke, and get an education.”
But the notion that arming officers protects our youth completely ignores the racial disparities inside of the Pittsburgh Public School district. It is no secret that black and brown students are marginalized. Allegheny County Schools suspend black students at a rate seven times higher than their non-black peers, according to the University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems. Furthermore, Pittsburgh Public Schools have been criticized for suspending students of color at disproportionately high rates.
The stigmas and stereotypes stakeholders have against black students leads to marginalization and criminalization. In response, many district schools have adopted restorative practices, which have been shown to reduce expulsion and suspension rates, promote high academic performance, build healthy relationships, and create a more positive school climate for staff and students.
Arming school police officers would only reverse the progress that restorative practices create. Arming police officers in the school lessens a child’s opportunity to sit down, laugh, joke, and get the education Chief Brown says he’s aiming for. What about the students who live in areas that have high crime rates? Do they deserve to come to school and feel unsafe as well? Schools should be safe spaces, not intimidating spaces.
Black students are more likely to be victims of the school-to-prison pipeline and police brutality. Consequently, there is a sense of distrust between our communities and police officers. The fact is, there are police officers from suburban communities policing neighborhoods and communities they know nothing about. They do not understand the culture or community in which they work. We have seen how this plays out when unarmed teenage black boys are murdered by police officers.
Arming school police officers could turn into more policing of students than protecting students. PPS district board member Moira Kaleida told Chief Brown that the same students who are disproportionately arrested by school police officers would be affected by a policy change. “We know who gets shot,” she said. “We know that it’s going to be the young black students. We know it’s going to be the kids with disabilities.”
What message does arming school police officers send to students? While we would love it to be that our officers care for and wish to protect our youth, the message it really sends is that firearms are necessary when dealing with youth in this district. Our students are aware of the racial disparities in our society. Our black youth experience racial profiling and discrimination. They are aware they are more likely to face harsher punishment than their white peers just because of the hue of their skin.
Adopting restorative practices was a step by the PPS in the right direction. Addressing and confronting the real issues that take place within the district would be the next step. Address the implicit biases. Hire more counselors certified in Trauma Therapy. Our youth face enough traumatic events, coming to school does not need to be another one. Schools should prepare our youth for success, not prison.
I attended Pittsburgh Public Schools from kindergarten to twelfth grade. I remember walking through the metal detectors, wondering why we were being searched. I eventually concluded that it was only to keep us safe. I also remember whom I saw every day on the other side of the metal detectors. My school’s security guards welcomed me. I especially remember my high school security guards. They always had warm smiles and breakfast for you if you were late. They did not have guns, nor did they need them. They broke up fights, mediated conflicts, brought people back together, gave pep talks, and made me feel safe, all while unarmed.
The United States has a long history of mistreating, criminalizing, and policing black and brown students. Disproportionate expulsion/suspension rates lead to poverty, unplanned teen pregnancy, and the school-to-prison pipeline. The education system does not necessarily favor black youth, who face harsher punishments for doing the same acts as their non-black peers. Allowing school police officers to carry firearms would negatively impact the climate of the school, the students’ safety, and black students particularly.
Chief Brown should know there will be no laughs if an accident occurs and a student is harmed by an armed school police officer. There will be no laughs once suspension, expulsion, and arrest rate multiply. Right now, we should be encouraging our youth and ensuring that they are “promise ready.” Black and brown students deserve innocence and a piece of their childhood that does not include trauma. African-Americans are deeply affected by constantly seeing people who look like them murdered, especially at the hands of the police. Our youth deserve to heal and feel safe during their healing. School should not look like a war zone. School should be a safe space and arming school police officers makes it the exact opposite.
Yazmin Bennett-Kelly is a student at Carlow University and a NewPeople fellow.
(TMC newspaper VOL. 48 No. 9 November 2018. All rights reserved)