The Appeal Podcast: Police Abuse In American Schools
With journalist Roxanna Asgarian.
In recent years, the number of police in American schools has skyrocketed as social services have been cut. As of 2016, 1.7 million students are in schools with police officers but no counselors, 3 million students are in schools with officers but no nurses, and 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers. This invariably has led to abuse and undue arrests of children, some as young as 6 years old. Today we are joined by Appeal contributor Roxanna Asgarian to discuss one case in Pittsburgh that saw a 7-year-old with development issues detained, pinned down and left with PTSD.
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Adam Johnson: Hi, welcome to The Appeal. I’m your host Adam Johnson. This is a podcast on criminal justice reform, abolition and everything in between. Remember, you can always follow us at The Appeal’s main Facebook and Twitter page and as always you can rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast.
In recent years, the number of police in American schools has skyrocketed as social services have been cut. As of 2016, 1.7 million students attended schools with police officers but no counselors, three million students are in schools with police officers, but no nurses and ten million students were in schools with police but no social workers. This has inedibly led to police abuse and arrest of children some preschool or below. Today we are joined by Appeal contributor Roxanna Asgarian to discuss one such case in Pittsburgh that’s saw a seven year old with developmental issues detained, pinned down with a knee and left with PTSD and she’ll explain why using the carceral system for child development is putting children, especially black children, at increased risk.
Roxanna Asgarian: There is a central issue here, which is that school police are trained by police departments and not by the school administration. And so there are times when the school’s policies conflict with the police officer’s training of how to handle a situation. So things like restraints and seclusion, which are problematic in and of itself because there aren’t a national set of standards that schools need to comply with, but schools often do have their own policies, but the school resource officers have another set of policies that are often more punitive because they’re coming from the lens of law enforcement.
Adam: Roxanna, thank you so much for coming on The Appeal.
Roxanna Asgarian: Thanks for having me again.
Adam: So you have two richly reported pieces, one of which is out now, one of which is coming out, on the use of police in schools. We’ll begin with the one that’s actually out, which is focusing on one case in Pittsburgh. So let’s begin with that case. There was a child who is referred to in court documents as DC, a seven year old who was detained by police. I want to use this case as an entry point into this kind of bigger issue of an increased hyper reliance on police in schools and these cases go viral now and then about these kind of shocking cases of children as young as three or four even who are subjected to police practices, handcuffs, arrested, etcetera. Can you tell us about this particular case and what it kind of says about the broader problem?
Roxanna Asgarian: Sure. So this child, DC, started acting out in his kindergarten class in 2015. The lawsuit spans a couple of years between 2015 and 2017 and this kid was increasingly having tantrums, yelling, leaving the classroom, sometimes lashing out at teachers and staff. And the lawsuit alleges that instead of getting the child an IEP, which is an individualized education program, it’s a way to tailor the school experience to kids with special needs, the Pittsburgh school did stuff like improperly restrain him, suspend him for long periods of time and lock him in a room by himself. And so this sort of escalated over this period of time into DC’s first grade year when the lawsuit says that the boy was restrained on the ground by a substitute teacher who was not trained to restrain kids and that the teacher put a knee into the kid’s back while he was on the ground. And then the final sort of crescendo, a school police officer handcuffed the seven year old boy while his mother was on her way to get him at school. So, um, the family got the boy evaluated and he got diagnosed with ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. And these are special needs that would allow him to get certain, uh, if he were to get that IEP, he would have been provided an aid and sensory breaks and different things like that. But instead of doing that, the school had these increasingly punitive responses that the family says violated the boy’s rights.
Adam: Okay. So let’s talk broadly about this bigger picture. So to what extent does the reliance and over-reliance of police by schools, where does this compare to say fifty years ago or ten years ago, has this gotten worse over time? And if so, what do you think is or what is believed to be the causal mechanism for this? Or does it sort of just generally track with American society’s increased reliance on carceral solutions in general?
Roxanna Asgarian: Yeah, I think it does track, you know, the practice of police in schools dates back to the 1950s so it’s been around for a really long time, but it seems like back then it was more of sort of a liaison program where it was, where the police were kind of mentoring and coaching and things like that. In the nineties as school shootings became an increased fear, school resource officers is what they’re called, they kind of blew up in schools and now they’re very common across the country. They’re in the tens of thousands and especially the larger schools and the high poverty schools have increased police presence. There’s a central issue here, which is that school police are trained by police departments and not by the school administration. And so there are times when the school’s policies conflict with the police officer’s training of how to handle a situation.
Roxanna Asgarian: So things like restraints and seclusion, which are problematic in and of itself because there aren’t a national set of standards that schools need to comply with, but schools often do have their own policies, but the school resource officers have another set of policies that are often more punitive because they’re coming from the lens of law enforcement.
Adam: Yeah, I don’t want to do the bleeding heart poor-policemen-routine, but it does seem like that there’s this broader problem and we have social ills or poverty, mental illness, houselessness, etcetera, that we take away all those resources and then therefore we rely on police to be mental health professionals, child development professionals. And again, I don’t want to act like my heart’s bleeding for police here, but it does seem like this is another extension of that, that we gut the social safety net and social services and we basically say, ‘all right, this is now a criminal problem’ because someone at some point down the line has to take care of it so it becomes a social workers with badges and guns.
Roxanna Asgarian: Yeah, that’s a good point. And teachers become sort of the front line in a lot of these problems because the kids in their classrooms are dealing with all of these issues, poverty and homelessness and substance use in their families and themselves. And you know, they’re under equipped to handle that because they aren’t social workers and the school counselors are extremely overworked when they are in the schools in the first place. So I mean it is an approach, you know, it’s a punitive approach and you know, like what DC needed, for instance, was a team of specialized educators who were looking at his behavior and trying to identify what was going on with him. Like he, you know, he’s a six, seven year old kid. So figuring out what is his behavior showing us and how do we help him succeed? And we actually do have a process for that. But what happened instead was he was labeled a bad kid and they basically decided that they didn’t want him in the class anymore. So instead of more attention, he got sent home more and more. He was disrupting his mom’s ability to make a living, to be able to care for him and he was feeling more and more alienated from the adults around him. He was diagnosed with PTSD after what happened in the school. So he’s a seven year old with PTSD, and that’s not what school is for, you know? And so we’re not providing him an education. We’re providing him a pathway to greater and greater punishments down the line.
Adam: Yeah, and you see this with a lot of, there’s an increased, obviously it’s very racialized, which we’ll get into as well, but a lot of the charter school movement is defined by discipline and disciplining people and preparing them for, one of the complaints is that preparing people for prison, not for college. And I want to talk about that. I want to talk about the racial aspect of this. Central to this story as central to every criminal legal story is the issue of race and racism. So you write that quote, “Public Source, a Pittsburgh nonprofit news outlet, reported that between the 2013-14 school year and the 2016-17 school year, 80 percent of arrests and citations in the city’s public schools were of Black youth. And in 2018, five Black students with emotional and behavioral issues settled a lawsuit against Pittsburgh Public Schools over abuse by staff at Woodland Hills High School.” Let’s talk about the racialized aspect of this and to what extent the numbers tell us a story that effectively, for lack of a better term, adultifies young black boys as being older than they are, which of course is backed up by studies. It’s backed up by a lot of the reporting on police shootings, etcetera. Can we talk about that and how we sort of effectively Rob black children of their childhood?
Roxanna Asgarian: It’s a major problem. There’s a wide range of studies across the country that have all come to the same conclusion that black students are disciplined at higher rates than kids of other races, and it’s not just black boys. A 2015 report with Department of Education data found that black girls were suspended six times more than white girls at school. And when we talk about the school to prison pipeline, kids who are suspended more, drop out more often and kids in the juvenile justice system are more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system as adults. So what’s happening in the schools really does affect what’s happening outside of them. And then just from a common sense perspective, when kids are treated with care, they’re better able to regulate their behaviors and they develop better problem solving skills. So if we are, and you know, this is child development stuff that a lot of educators do know, we’re treating kids differently depending on who they are and that’s clear with the data of how often black kids are getting disciplined. And then when we’re treating other kids with care and trying to figure out what’s going on with them, you’re providing those kids with a foundation that these heavily disciplined kids aren’t getting.
Adam: Do we have any sense of what the norm is in other countries? Obviously the racial aspect, it may not be totally analogous, but what is the like, is this standard? Like if I went to a school in Peru or Sweden or China, like is it normal to just have like cops running around? It’s a normal thing or is this one of these weird things where you’re American and you leave and you go to another country and you go, wait a second.
Roxanna Asgarian: Yeah. I mean, honestly I don’t know the answer to that. I do know like school shootings are a problem that seem to be pretty uniquely American. I mean, you know, at least the scale of our problem is much greater than, and that’s sort of been the reasoning or the excuse behind-
Adam: The pretext. Yeah. I mean, yeah.
Roxanna Asgarian: The police presence. So, it’s the response, the approach is, is what we-
Adam: It’s carceral.
Roxanna Asgarian: Yeah and it goes against what we know works for kids who are developing.
Adam: Which is, I don’t know, maybe ban assault weapons.
Roxanna Asgarian: Well, yeah. And also traumatizing a bunch of children isn’t going to increase their chances for survival in general.
Adam: Yeah. Everyone wants to think that if we just train a bunch of mini Jack Bauers we can ward off these things.
Roxanna Asgarian: Right.
Adam: It’s absurd because we have plenty of examples of where the police and the schools themselves just run away. So moving forward, I guess I’m curious before we go, this is a systemic issue. Is there any broad effort by any groups or organizations, ACLU, etcetera to try to push back against this narrative? It seems like we’ve kind of acquiesced, we’ve sort of accepted that having a bunch of white guys with cropped haircuts and wrap around Oakleys running around in schools is somehow normal. Is that something that people are trying to change or trying to change that mentality?
Roxanna Asgarian: Well I think there has been a push and there’s been, like I said, there’s so much research that supports the fact that police in schools isn’t necessarily doing what we’re hoping for it to do. So I think there’s some awareness and like you said, we are sort of in the midst of a, a flurry of new stories surrounding things that I think just common sense people are saying, you know, six year olds shouldn’t be handcuffed and put in the back of police cars and things like that. Like tantrums from small children, we’ve all seen and we’ve all experienced them. So this is sort of like we can kind of, we’re starting to kind of see that the response is not proportionate or not correct to the problems in the schools. It’s kind of just where we are with the justice system in general, right? We know that there is a problem, but the way that these contracts are awarded, you know like it’s similar to the justice system in that counties are responsible for making their own decisions around these police departments that are sometimes housed in schools. So I’m here in Houston, HISD has its own school police department and that’s hard to change when it’s really built into the system. So I think there is an increased awareness that it’s a problem. I think that it would take a pretty big push to start changing it.
Adam: Right. Okay. Well I think that’s a good place to stop. Thank you so much for your reporting on this. I look forward to reading the follow ups on it as well, cause I do think it’s something that’s only going to get worse before it gets better.
Roxanna Asgarian: Yeah, for sure. Thank you so much for having me.
Adam: Thank you so much to our guest Roxanna Asgarian. This has been The Appeal podcast and remember, you can always follow us on The Appeal magazine’s main Facebook and Twitter page, and as always you can rate and subscribe to us on Apple Podcast. The show is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Executive producer Craig Hunter. I’m your host Adam Johnson. Thank you so much. We’ll see you next week.