On Saturday, June 6, hundreds marched through downtown Manhattan to oppose the police presence in New York City schools. Educators and youth walked alongside each other under a blazing sun, voicing grievances that have been accumulating for years as public school buildings have been securitized with metal detectors and school safety agents—a division of the New York Police Department that specializes in patrolling schools. Amid mass protests against police brutality, both teachers and students say they are tired of feeling like their schools are constantly under the watch of law enforcement. The protest also came in the wake of the decision by the Minneapolis school district to terminate its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, following the public outcry over the killing of George Floyd.
As part of the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” police in schools have come under fire for harassing, restraining, and arresting students—often for relatively minor disciplinary infractions that end up leading to suspension, detention, or expulsion—and disproportionately targeting Black and Latinx youth as well as students with disabilities.
Kevin Prosen, who teaches high school English in a heavily immigrant community in Queens, said that students were not only faced with a police presence in their schools but also “terrorized by the police in the neighborhood.” He came to the march as part of a contingent of the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE), a nationwide network of teachers seeking to advance a social justice agenda in schools and teacher unions. Building on a national Black Lives Matter week of action in February, New York’s MORE caucus is joining sister groups in other cities in a call to remove police from schools and replace them with counselors, social workers, and programs that create a nurturing and inclusive—rather than punitive—environment for students.
“We can replace the police,” Prosen said, “but we have to make sure we have a better society in order to do that. We have to change our priorities. You can see it here. It’s either the cops or the schools. You can’t do both.”
The role of the New York City’s 5,300 school safety agents, who are organized under the Teamsters and not the city’s notorious police unions, has come under scrutiny in recent years. They are frequently involved not in actual public security issues, but rather in mental health–related incidents—highlighting the resource gaps in counseling and psychosocial supports for students.
Lucy, who also teaches in Queens, recalled a troubling incident when a student was ordered to be removed by the administration, and “school safety officers came into my classroom without my permission to remove a student, even though I didn’t want them removed. . . . That felt really unsafe for that student, and it also felt like a violation of the space we created in my classroom. . . . But I think it’s a larger systemic issue about where we’re putting our money, and what we think of when we think of safety.”
Trina Davis, a pre-kindergarten educator at a Brooklyn elementary school, said that her students often display the signs of being traumatized by the social turmoil they have grown up with.
“This is a systematic oppression for people of color. We’ve been damaged. This country, we built this country, for free. And America still has not given us reparations. So guess what? We are still traumatized by a lot of the things we see.”
In the community surrounding the school, she said, youth are frequently getting targeted and entrapped by police.
“What they do is they prey on our kids, on our kids of color,” she said. Police will arrest young people on some pretext that leaves them with a minor record, so that “by the time he’s twenty-one, they want to charge him with other things that—nine times out of ten—don’t have anything to do with the crime that was committed. Say it was disorderly conduct. By the time they get to the precinct, because we are people of color, the charges jump up to something else.”
Asked if she thought this latest wave of protests would lead to real change, Davis reflected, “What happened to George Floyd sparked something in me. We need to change. And although it’s bad, good has come out of it. It’s opening up the eyes of the blind.”
Noting the diverse participants in the march, she continued, “Look at this. People of all colors, from all walks of life, are here, for one cause. We want justice. The system needs to fucking change. It needs to change. It shouldn’t be one race that has so much power that can come into our communities and destroy us. We are already oppressed people of color. Leave us alone. . . . I believe something is going to happen.”
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent’s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.