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Schools need counselors, not cops

As schools look to safely reopen, we must consider the lack of safety that Black, Latinx and disabled students face because of police presence in their schools. While the movement to end the school-to-prison pipeline has seen support from advocates, activists, parents, teachers and young people for decades, the fight continues to break the school-to-prison pipeline once and for all. There are success stories that provide opportunity to advance change toward eliminating policing in schools. 

While pursuing my master’s degree in media and strategic communication from George Washington University, I developed a #PoliceFreeSchools campaign for Baltimore city, my hometown, for my capstone project. I delved into the city’s history of policing in schools and the zero-tolerance policies that shaped the culture of policing. As the school system aims to shift towards more restorative direction discipline, there is still much progress needed to ensure that children can learn in a holistically nurturing environment.

I found that historically, systemic racism significantly contributed to harsher punitive policies and attitudes toward juveniles, which led to the expansion of police presence in schools as a means of expanding social control. As we reckon with the broad impacts of racism and seek to build a better world, we must ask: How can we keep all kids safe? If we know that policing in schools makes marginalized children more vulnerable, how can we create a school environment that provides them with a much-needed safety net? How can we prioritize preventing problems rather than simply reacting to them?

What does policing in schools look like?

School resource officers and other school law enforcement entities perform similar duties to law enforcement officers who are not in schools: they typically patrol school property, investigate incidents of crime and deal with the students that break school rules or the law. With funding from a number of federal bills in reaction to school shootings—from the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018—the expanded police presence in schools is typically accompanied by metal detectors and K-9 partners with free range to search students for weapons and drugs under a lower legal standard than what is afforded to adults.

How should we talk about policing in schools?

The messaging used in these campaigns will, of course, vary for your specific audiences, but it must work to illustrate what the alternative to school policing can look like beyond just what’s on paper, and the best way to do this is through storytelling. Learning from the Schott Foundation’s Tale of Two Schools model, your narrative should be able to explain how various scenarios—those that are far more common than the extreme incidents that may come to mind  when thinking about the lack of police—would be handled without police intervention. This narrative would accompany additional, tailored talking points, but would also need to emphasize that there cannot be a singular solution to the nuanced problems that students face every day. 

Here are some guidelines to reference when crafting messaging statements that advocate for decreased policing in schools:

1. Combat the narrative that police create safety while explaining why the audience should care about policing in schools.

All children should be able to feel safe in school. They deserve a school environment that does not criminalize them for mistakes they make but gives them the opportunity to learn and grow from those mistakes.

The value statement is the fundamental backbone of why what you’re saying is important. Challenging the idea that police create safety in schools is key, but it must also clarify what impact policing has on students’ well-being. Focusing the messaging on allowing students to grow and learn is effective in a conversation that is fundamentally about educational outcomes.

2. Overcome the audience’s hesitation to embrace this new education system by using “counselors, not cops” over “police-free schools.”

A. Reallocating funding from school policing to mental health practitioners will allow schools to better serve children with a more nurturing approach without needing additional funding from [the school board/the city/the state].

B. Schools that prioritize restorative practices over policing say that the transition improved overall school climate and increased levels of respect among and between students and school staff.

C. We must support students’ physical, social, emotional and academic needs in holistic ways that bolster physical and emotional well-being. Counselors, not cops, are able to achieve these outcomes.

The messaging must circumvent the audience’s barrier by saying whatever it is that would make it easier to do what you are asking them to do. The first barrier message addresses financial concerns over limited school funding and calls for more services, and the second barrier message addresses concerns over safety and what schools would look like without policing. The key here is to tailor this message to your audience, what they value most and address what may be preventing them from acting. The call to action here uses “counselors, not cops” rather than “police-free schools” because it focuses on what you want to see rather than simply what you don’t want to see. Strategically positioning solutions to the problems that you are seeking to solve is a powerful way to influence audiences to act.

3. Make it clear that this work is toward a bigger picture: creating a liberatory education system.

We envision an education system that allows all students to flourish in a safe, nurturing and equitable learning environment. We want to uplift a school culture that gives kids the opportunity to grow while fostering trusting relationships among the school community.

The vision statement explains to your audience what’s possible in the world we want to build together. It ties back to the value statement and should serve as a north star for the work an organization is doing. Once you accomplish your goal to decrease or end policing in schools, what will be different and why is that a good thing? Ending with an optimistic vision statement allows audiences to understand how this action will impact the communities you serve and create a better world overall.

You can learn more about messaging with Spitfire’s Mindful Messaging tool. You can also learn about creating an effective communications strategy with Spitfire’s Smart Chart 4.0.

Who is working on this issue?

There are a number of organizations who have made strides toward ending policing in schools, and many continue to work toward creating a more equitable and safe school environment for students. The  ACLU, for example, released  this report highlighting how students suffer when school systems under resource mental health professionals while overcriminalizing students. The findings show that Black students are as much as eight times as likely to be arrested than white students, and that disabled students are as much as 10 times as likely to be arrested than non-disabled students. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has been working on  ending reactionary policies that increase school police for years.

Local organizations are also lending their efforts to call for a decreased police presence in schools. RISE for Youth in Virginia is advocating that the legislature Remove state dollars from supporting school resource officer programs, stating that “Virginia must dissolve local school divisions’ reliance on police departments  for in school support.” Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) has been working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline in Milwaukee through its Youth Power Agenda, calling for the public school system to “divest from failure and invest in freedom.” The Montana Racial Equity Project has called for meaningful changes in school policing, and the organization  recently withdrew from the City of Helena’s School Resource Officer MOU Working Group because of a lack of discussion around the purpose and utility of having officers in the school district.

As activists and advocates continue to show us through their powerful work on these issues, the fight for justice beyond the limits of racist, violent policing, as well as efforts to redefine and cultivate safety, extends to the education system. Communicators have a role to play in this fight by using their skills to present a positive vision of police-free schools and influencing decision-makers to invest in safety for all children by building a liberatory education system.


This entry was posted on Monday, September 13, 2021 at 07:45 am and is filed under Frame, narrative and message development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.