OPINION: Keep Your Tanks Away From Our Schools

by Brandon K. Hersey

Each year, for the past three years, the Seattle Public School system has adopted a resolution supporting the Black Lives Matter at School movement. Each statement unanimously declared that we would work to undo an institutionally racist system that has marginalized Black students for decades and has left them behind as the city’s crippling opportunity gap continues to widen. The Black Lives Matter at School movement has four simple demands: end zero-tolerance policies, mandate Black history and ethnic studies, hire more Black teachers, and fund counselors, not cops.

In alignment with our strategic plan, the Seattle School Board took one large step toward cementing these demands into policy by presenting a resolution that will reevaluate our relationship with the Seattle Police Department, seek to ban firearms in schools, develop a Black studies curriculum, and reassess the role of Student Emphasis Officers in our schools.

In the wake of the senseless murder of Charleena Lyles, Che Taylor, John T Williams, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others, it’s been found that fatal police encounters are the leading cause of death for young men in this country, regardless of race. However, make no mistake, these outcomes are far more egregious for Black men and boys. Over 1000 people are killed every year by the hands of law enforcement. Black people account for 25% of those deaths, yet only make up 16% of the United States population. Black people are killed by the police at disproportionately higher rates than white people in this county.

The criminal justice and school systems combine to form what is called the school-to-prison pipeline. In the United States, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Even here in Washington State, the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction reported that Black males and other students of color are disproportionately disciplined at a rate of 6.5% as compared to 1% for white students. The U.S. Department of Education also found that Black children are significantly more likely to attend schools where police are present. In 43 states, black students are arrested at a disproportionately higher rate when compared to their white peers. Here in Seattle, Black students make up only 14% of the student body, but they account for nearly 50% of students referred to the police by Seattle Public School employees.

As a country, we have normalized the presence of law enforcement in schools. School staff often call the police on students for disciplinary action that should be handled by teachers or administration at the building level. Here in Seattle, 911 calls in relation to student conduct happen all too often. Last year, a white staff member at Rising Star –formerly Van Asselt – called the police on a Black fifth-grader who was attempting to leave the classroom. From September 2019 to March 2020, more than 300 calls were made to 911 from district phones. As more Black men, women, and children are murdered by police, we have to do all that we can to eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline.

Peaceful protests demanding police reform and divestments continue to grow, yet the response from local law enforcement agencies has become more militaristic, especially here in Seattle. Late Monday night, local residents tweeted pictures of Seattle Law Enforcement, SWAT teams, and the National Guard using elementary school parking lots to stage their operations, without the knowledge or permission of Seattle Public Schools. These same schools still serve thousands of students each day with meals, learning packets, and other resources and services our families need.

Furthermore, the fact that the Seattle Police Department chose to park their vehicles on school property, which is privately owned, without permission shows that they are operating under the assumption that they are above the law. The law which we are supposed to trust them to uphold. If they assume they have the right to park on private property, what else will they assume is permissible in their interactions with our families and students?

The images of SWAT team vehicles parked at the Seattle World School are haunting. Right now, as unemployment hovers at 13%, our students and families are struggling to make ends meet, what message are we sending to our students? Instead of using resources to police peaceful protesters, we need to fund efforts that will disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.

Brandon K. Hersey is an educator and Seattle School Board Director (District VII). Connect with him at: brandon.hersey@seattleschools.org




Featured image by Alex Garland