At 12 years old, Patrisse Khan-Cullors was angry about having to attend summer school between the seventh and eighth grades. An otherwise bright and precocious student, Khan-Cullors’ math and science grades were low enough that she needed remediation.
Raised in a low-income, single-parent household in Los Angeles’ sprawling metropolis, Khan-Cullors coped with her preteen angst by smoking some weed in a middle school bathroom.
Someone must have tattled on her, Khan-Cullors recalled, because a police officer came to her classroom two days later. The officer handcuffed Khan-Cullors in front of the other summer school students, perp walked her to the dean’s office, searched her person for marijuana she no longer had and made her call her mother.
“I was hysterical, [and] I definitely lied to my mother,” Khan-Cullors, who co-founded of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, said in a recent sit-down interview. “It was the presence of a cop on campus, who was targeting me and that just made me feel like, sad and ashamed and confused — a lot of confusion.”
The memory of her humiliation was so vivid that, 20 years later, Khan-Cullors detailed her arrest in the recently released bestseller, When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir. Written with mentor and journalist Asha Bandele, the book chronicles experiences with the criminal justice system that pushed Khan-Cullors into full-time activist work as an adult.
Police involvement in student discipline is at the root of the school-to-prison pipeline, a term commonly used among activists to point out the criminalization of youths. It has a significant connection to the story of Trayvon Martin, whose suspension under a Miami high school’s zero tolerance policy put him in Sanford, Florida, where he died on Feb. 26, 2012 — six years ago on Monday. His shooting death at the hands of a vigilante helped inspire Khan-Cullors and others to create the BLM movement.
In the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, the state’s governor has called for hundreds of millions of dollars to place more police officers in schools — one officer for every 1,000 students in the 2018 school year — and equip campuses with metal detectors, bulletproof glass and steel doors. That proposal has set off alarm bells among civil rights advocates, as black students are disproportionately subject to safety policies that make their campuses resemble prisons, and to school disciplinary actions that push them out of the classroom and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
Civil rights advocates say the problems persist because of zero tolerance suspension policies around often arbitrary infractions, and because of lacking national standards regulating the scope of law enforcement presence in public schools. Just as survivors of the Stoneman Douglas shooting are demanding change in the nation’s gun control laws, civil rights advocates continue pushing back on school safety policies that have proven to be detrimental to the education of black and brown students.
“Given that we’re in a moment of students — young, mostly white affluent students — rising up against gun violence that happened at their own school in Parkland, we also need to talk about the impact zero tolerance laws and policies end up having on mostly black and brown communities,” Khan-Cullors said.
The scope of the problem
Black students aren’t more misbehaved, disruptive or inclined to criminality than their white, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian peers, civil rights lawyer Judith Browne-Dianis, who is executive director of the social justice group, Advancement Project, explained in a recent interview. Infractions committed by black students are viewed and addressed differently because racism is often “baked into the system,” she said.
Wearing a baseball cap inside of a classroom or scribbling graffiti on a locker can be a suspendable offense, if you’re black, Browne-Dianis said. Raising your voice at a teacher can be seen as disruptive and disrespectful of authority, rather than a youthful expression of emotion.
At its worst, discipline and removal of black students by law enforcement can include jarring displays of violence. In 2015, a white sheriff’s deputy assaulted a black female student at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. In footage captured by the girl’s classmates that went viral online and drew national headlines, the deputy violently pulls the girl from her desk, throws her across floor and drags her out of the classroom.
Although the vast majority of school disciplinary actions don’t involve this kind of violence, there are other well-known examples in which officers have tackled students, handcuffed them to desks and chairs or even used stun guns to force compliance. It’s rare to see this kind of force used against white students.
“Police officers are paid to enforce the criminal code — and so they are in the school environment looking for criminal infractions,” Browne-Dianis said. “They’re not thinking, this is a 12-year-old, 13-year-old, maybe this is a 5-year-old, and how am I going to deal with them differently than I deal with the person on the street.”
Black students made up just 15% of the more than 50 million public school kids during the 2013-2014 school year and were 25% of the 143,866 students without disabilities referred to law enforcement that year, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office. That’s a clear disparity, considering white students made up 50% of public school students and 38% of those without disabilities referred to police.
An analysis of the DOE data by the National Black Women’s Justice Institute shows that black girls were nearly five times more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions and four times more likely to be arrested in school than white girls.
For older high school students, some infractions can include criminal charges that are adjudicated in courts. Delinquency case rates decreased for youth of all racial groups between 2005 and 2014, but in 2014, the case rate for black youth was about triple the rates for white, Hispanic and American Indian youths, and more than 11 times the case rate for Asian youth, according to the most recent report of the National Center for Juvenile Justice.
The National Association of School Resource Officers, which boasts 3,000 members globally, says school-based policing is among the fastest-growing areas of law enforcement. School resource officers, typically police officers assigned to patrol public school grounds and hallways, are tasked with maintaining a safe and secure environment for students and staff. Founded in 1991, NASRO has pushed back on the school-to-prison pipeline label as “counterproductive to the policy debate when it levels charges of race-biased, disparate juvenile arrests.”
For Browne-Dianis, the pushback doesn’t change the fact that officers have been overly aggressive with children. “Many of the communities that are seeing these police assaults in schools are the same communities that have no trust with the police on the streets.” she said. “And so, if I don’t trust this cop on the streets, why do I want them walking down the hallway with my children?”
Trayvon Martin’s suspension preceded his death that sparked a movement
On Feb. 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin was reportedly serving out a weeklong suspension in Sanford, Florida, when he encountered an armed volunteer neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman, who fatally shot him. Martin, 17, had been sent away from his Miami school under a zero tolerance rule for alleged possession of marijuana. His parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, sent him to Sanford so that his suspension could be supervised by his father.
Zimmerman’s eventual acquittal of second-degree murder and manslaughter in April 2013 sparked outrage among black activists and motivated Khan-Cullors, along with Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi, to create the Black Lives Matter movement. Several other organizations galvanized by the verdict, including Dream Defenders, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, the Black Youth Project 100 and Color of Change, began organizing collectively under the Movement for Black Lives coalition.
In 2016, the coalition called for the “immediate end to the criminalization and dehumanization of black youth across all areas of society including, but not limited to; our nation’s justice and education systems.” The policy paper was dubbed “A Vision for Black Lives.”
Meanwhile, incidences of police aggression in school hallways have persisted. In November, an officer in Louisville, Kentucky, used a stun gun on a black student, after attempting to break up a fight between students fighting over a pair of headphones. The incident was videotaped.
In 2016, a black senior at Benjamin Franklin High School in Philadelphia was assaulted by an officer. The student wanted to use the bathroom, was without a hall pass, and had defied the officer ordering him to go back to his classroom and return with a pass. Video footage of the exchange shows the officer placing the student in a restraining hold.
The Philadelphia Student Union, a civil rights group of primarily black and brown teens, fought back over the Ben Franklin incident. In a recent interview with Mic, union members said they’ve implemented a complaint process for students to report bad treatment by school resource officers.
While applauding the efforts of students demanding accountability for gun and police violence in schools, Khan-Cullors said she is also challenging educators to think back to a time when law enforcement wasn’t even part of the discussion.
“This idea that law enforcement must be in our school system is a new idea,” she said. “So what were we doing beforehand? I think we need to investigate that.”