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As doctors think about the havoc the global pandemic may cause in a classroom and education experts discuss learning loss, they need to hear from students — particularly from Black and brown students.
In short, we are all dealing with some form of trauma or anxiety. For the last year and a half, we have been in and out of school buildings, scared for our lives. The pandemic had a particularly tragic impact on our communities.
We’ve also witnessed state-sanctioned violence on young teenagers who look like us.
So as the country grapples with going back to school this year, the first people school leaders should be talking to are students and our families — from all communities, not just those that are predominantly white or wealthy.
School leaders need to ask us — students of color, students who are differently abled and students from communities where investment in education is low and resources are few — how we feel about going back to school.
If they do ask us, they will learn that we feel scared and sad. We are fearful because the schools we left caused us harm.
We don’t feel safe returning. And it’s not only because of the pandemic. Many of us are in schools that feel like jails. We are surrounded by police and under constant surveillance.
Related: If schools don’t overhaul discipline, ‘teachers will still be calling the police on our Black students’
Right now, some of us aren’t free to learn, explore and make mistakes in our schools. Instead, in our middle schools, we are seeing police handcuff our friends and slam them into cop cars. In our high schools, we are watching students get pepper-sprayed in common areas between their classes.
Safety goes beyond masks and social distancing, which are critically important at the moment. We believe that having police in our schools is a threat to our health and well-being. We want an education system in which we can freely laugh and learn.
So, as policymakers decide how and when to reopen schools, they should also ask students like us what our vision is for a better classroom experience.
If they do, they will learn that we demand police-free schools. We need to fund education, not incarceration. We deserve better than to go back to the same underfunded and overpoliced schools many of us left during the pandemic last year.
The Youth Mandate for Education and Liberation maps out how schools can become safe spaces for young people — not places of punishment. All communities should apply its recommendations.
School budgets are a reflection of values, and what the school systems in our communities have been telling us is that we are not their priority.
We don’t feel safe returning. And it’s not only because of the pandemic. Many of us are in schools that feel like jails.
For example, the Clark County School District in Nevada has been spending more than $18 million per year on their school police department, and the federal government has given the district money for bulletproof vests. Yet when Desiree volunteered at a school supply giveaway in Clark County, hundreds of families showed up, desperate to get basic items — like pencils, paper and backpacks.
What we as students are and are not getting shows that this district does not want to provide us with basic necessities — even though it is willing to spend frivolously to support punitive systems that harm us.
Clark County is similar to many school districts across the country. Since 1998, the federal government has provided more than $1 billion to subsidize the placement of police in schools, and there is no evidence that doing so has made our schools safer.
Across the nation, 14 million students are now going back to schools that have police but no counselors, nurses, psychologists or social workers.
This reflects the huge disparity between what our communities need and what we receive. But there has been some progress.
Since 2020, according to the Center for Popular Democracy and its partners who track this, approximately 40 districts across the country have taken some action to remove police from schools.
In 2021, the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon ended its contract for “School Resource Officers” — another name for cops in schools.
That was an incredible win for advocates championing police-free schools. We are fighting to make sure that more schools start using funds to make schools safer and more supportive.
And now is the time. School districts have an unprecedented opportunity to invest deeply in our schools. The American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) is the single largest infusion of federal money into schools in history.
We believe that money should be used to fund not police, but programs like advanced classes and sports, which are sorely lacking in schools where students of color are the majority. The funds should go to culturally responsive restorative justice practitioners, including social workers, mental health supports, nurses and educators and to educational resources, such as books that reflect diversity and inclusion These are the people and tools that will actually keep us safe and enable our communities to thrive.
The infusion of federal money should not go to more surveillance cameras or police. It’s hurtful that any district would even consider investing this money in any form of policing.
The national youth movement and the education justice movement have come together, joining with parents and educators from across the country. We share a vision for what healthy and thriving schools could be. We are strong, focused and unified.
You will find us in the streets, at school board meetings and in the halls of Congress this year, demanding that all levels of government — local, state and federal — listen to our views.
Education must be used to support the vision of Black and brown young people across the country who have come together to fight for police-free schools.
Desiree Rodriguez is a youth fellow at Make the Road Nevada. She is a student in the Clark County School District in Nevada.
Alex Sosa is a youth organizer at Latinos Unidos Siempre. He is a student in the Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon.
This story about police in schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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