Why the police have no place in schools | VikChechi-Ribeiro

Boosting ‘schools-based officers’ in Manchester and elsewhere will only harm students – particularly those who are black

During the pandemic, alongside the work of planning and delivering lessons in school and online, many teachers have been organising to build an anti-racist education system in which police have no place.

The racist nature of policing and the criminal justice system extends to the UK’s schools, where black students are more likely to be excluded from school, receive under-predicted grades and be targeted by punitive behavioural and uniform policies. For years, “school-based police officers” have harmonised policing and education and posed a significant risk to black students. Their duties include dealing with pupil behaviour, advising on policies and patrolling the school site.

By their very nature, SBPOs criminalise behavioural issues, whether by patrolling school corridors, stopping and searching students or racially profiling pupils and adding their names to gang databases. Plans to expand their use in areas such as Greater Manchester, where an additional 20 officers are to be deployed across schools, will only harm students – particularly if they happen to be black.

SBPOs were introduced by New Labour in 2002 as part of the government’s attempt to tackle “crime and antisocial behaviour”. Their use in schools since then can be partly explained by the effects of austerity. Over the last decade, while real-term wages have stagnated, we’ve seen cuts to social and mental health services, youth facilities and affordable housing. This social crisis has spilled over into behavioural problems in schools.

Meanwhile, cuts to the education system have created a recruitment and retention crisis that compounds these problems. The UK has one of the largest average class sizes in Europe, and over two-thirds of school heads have reduced the number of teaching assistants and pastoral support to save money. This has left schools struggling to support vulnerable students with behavioural needs.

At the same time, government policies have increased the pressure on school leaders. Heads are subject to a myriad of accountability measures, such as high-stakes testing, Ofsted inspections, league tables and performance-related pay. Failing to meet these narrowly prescriptive standards can result in a lack of pay progression, the removal of school leadership or even academisation. In this environment, the challenging behaviour of a student is seen as an obstacle to exam results, rather than an indication that communication is needed.

Confronted with these pressures, schools have often turned to SBPOs as a relatively cheap, quick behavioural fix. But SBPOs aren’t qualified to be in schools. Their presence brings more children into contact with the criminal justice system, helping to create a “school-to-prison pipeline”, where young people travel from schools to pupil referral units and secure schools, to youth offending institutions (where half of inmates are black and minority ethnic) and, finally, to prison.

SBPOs are racist by design. The presence of police officers is justified by a fixation on gangs and knife crime, yet serious violence on school grounds is extremely rare. It’s never private schools that are seen to need a police presence, but rather children who are black and working class. And as we’ve seen in the US and UK, SBPOs aren’t even effective on their own terms: they do little to prevent criminal activity such as school shootings or stabbings. Police in schools entrench a culture of low expectations, reinforcing the idea that some communities require policing, rather than the resources and means to thrive.

Schools should be sites of learning, where students make and learn from their mistakes and are critical of authority. When a student exhibits challenging behaviour, it’s the role of educators and learners to develop a sense of empathy and solidarity with one another, and to build relationships in the school and community.

As workers, we must organise and demand anti-racist workplaces from our local authorities and academy trusts. And as educators, we should be making it clear that we’re the most qualified people to deal with behavioural issues, and that money and resources would be better spent on alternatives in our sector: reversing austerity in education, reducing class sizes, increasing the number of staff, pastoral support and school psychologists. We’ve seen education unions in the United States successfully campaign against school police officers on a “defunding the police” platform. The same can happen here.

National Education Union (NEU) members in Greater Manchester have been organising to oppose SBPOs. One survey of 230 people showed that a strong majority of educators oppose SBPOs (68%), citing increased surveillance of students (77%) and risks of racial profiling (76%). Educators in Greater Manchester have also supported a campaign led by community organisers Kids of Colour and Northern Police Monitoring Project. Their survey of 554 educators, young people and the community showed that almost nine out of 10 respondents reported feeling negative about a regular police presence in schools, and almost three in four parents or guardians said they would have concerns about sending their children to a school with a regular police presence.

The No Police in Schools campaign is an example of trade unionism that has progressed from campaigning on industrial issues to organising around social and public goods. We should be replicating this model across the country to develop a national campaign for an anti-racist education system where police have no place.

As the Irish republican leader James Connolly said: “Our demands most moderate are, we only want the Earth.” It’s time to demand an education system that meets the needs of working-class children and communities: one that is based on uplifting people, not imposing austerity; on dignity, not racism; and on solidarity, not policing.

• Vik Chechi-Ribeiro is a secondary school teacher and NEU Manchester vice-president


Vik Chechi-Ribeiro

The GuardianTramp

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