Abolition for the People

Funneling Our Children From Classrooms to Cages Ends Now

Policing in schools doesn’t just feed students to the carceral system — it corrupts the very nature of education

This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.

I was 16 years old, stopped at a red light, the first time I saw sirens flashing in my rearview mirror.

Stomach tight, breath stifled, and heart pounding, I looked over at my friend in the passenger seat. The same terror trying to close my throat stared back at me through his eyes. I could hear a muffled voice over a loudspeaker telling me to pull over. Instead, I hit the gas, bolting through the red light and racing down the street. My friend yelled at me, “What are you doing? Pull over!” I didn’t know what I was doing. It didn’t make logical sense. All I knew was that we were in imminent danger and I had to get away. But my friend was right. Escape was impossible. My barely running old-school Tercel’s horsepower was no match for a police cruiser, and capture after a chase was even more dangerous. I pulled over. I rolled my window down as the cop quickly approached demanding an answer. “I got scared,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

While I have since learned how to navigate the constricting terror I feel when I see flashing lights behind me (this hasn’t changed despite nearly three decades and a professorship at a prestigious university), I want to be clear that this panic isn’t limited to when we recognize the shape of a police car in our rearview mirror. It isn’t limited to the myriad other activities people racialized as Black are brutalized for, such as walking or swinging or singing or laughing or playing or watching television or sleeping or breathing. It is also something many of our babies feel as they walk into their schools, as they sit in classrooms, as they navigate hallways between classes. It is what happens when you feel your body tighten as you realize cops are not in schools to protect you. They are there to protect schools from you.

Beyond the ways this understanding manifests in our bodies, the relationship between Black children and the school’s larger disciplinary structure is clear: Both principals and teachers in U.S. public schools are over 80% white, and nearly 70% of police in schools are white. Regardless of the discipliner’s gender (the majority of teachers and principals are women, and the majority of police in schools are men), Black students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade are overrepresented in every form of discipline — from teacher-issued referrals to corporal punishment to suspensions, expulsions, and police arrests.

What we want is for schools and classrooms to be spaces of love. Not just a love for the Harlem Renaissance or the civil rights movement but love for loud colors and loud voices.

Even Black toddlers in pre-school, as young as three years old, are disproportionately sent out of the classroom, suspended, and expelled. What they can look forward to as they enter elementary school are cops who think they are old enough to be arrested: Kaia Rolle, a six-year-old girl in Florida, was handcuffed, placed in the back of a police cruiser, and taken to a juvenile detention facility simply for throwing a tantrum in class. By the time her grandmother became aware of what happened, young Kaia had already had her mugshot taken and fingerprints recorded.

Six years old. Hopscotch, jump rope, and mud pies years old. Let that sink in.

Kaia is only one of the thousands of Black students harassed, assaulted, and arrested in schools every year — the very beginning of a school-to-prison pipeline that, through a system of discipline and marginalization, feeds children directly into the carceral system. Perhaps even more terrifying, however, is the fact that these experiences are too often normalized as part of Black students’ reality in schools. Having learned early on about the unrelenting violence police unleash on those racialized Black, these children enter school with survival sensibilities based on a recognition of how police see them and what this means for how they necessarily must see police.

In fact, Black students are most likely to report not feeling any safer with an officer on their campus and least likely to agree with positive statements about the police in their schools. As a part of my own ethnographic work with Black high school girls, I interviewed students extensively about their experiences in schools — including with school police. One of my students remarked, “We’re a target. And they see us as a threat, so you know we see them as a threat.” If the police are threatened by Blackness more broadly, this signals the impossibility of a protective relationship between the police as a structure and Black people as human beings.

Students also shared numerous stories of their own negative interactions with police. Students discussed being followed, male family members being called the N-word, having guns put to their heads as children during raids of their homes, and being fondled inappropriately during unprovoked searches at school. Their own experiences, and the experiences of Black people en masse, led students to believe that police were against them and that police would either be unnecessarily brutal, or unhelpful and certainly nonprotective, in the event their assistance may have been needed.

Another one of my students commented, “I feel like police officers show different feelings towards Black people then they would to a normal, like, white person.” A normal white person. While this student’s words speak for themselves, I want to emphasize the way in which she understands police to be able to see the humanity in white people (look, a normal person) while they look at Black people “differently.” This student understands that for police, Black people are not quite normal; they are something else entirely.

It is precisely this inability to recognize Black humanity that permeates students’ broader anti-Black experiences in schools. Indeed, anti-Blackness in education is not simply about the ways Black students are disproportionately punished by teachers, administrators, and actual gun-toting police officers. It is also about the ways Black students are policed more broadly — the attacks against our hair in locs, braids, and even the Afros that grow naturally from our heads. The ways Black girls are hypersexualized and dress-coded disproportionately. The ways Black boys’ bodies are adultified and rendered criminalblackman. The ways LGBTQ and gender-nonbinary Black students are erased, marginalized, and othered. The ways our bodies — our skin, our hair, our clothes, our voice, our body language, our cadence, our minds — have always represented a dangerous intrusion within educational institutions structured by anti-Black solidarity. It is about the policing of the boundaries of our existence — the way our very presence, let alone our struggle, our brilliance, our creativity, and our ingenuity, are misrepresented and/or effectively stamped out of the curriculum and denied space in schools more broadly.

So while the decadeslong fight led by students, parents, activists, and organizations alike to abolish police in schools is perhaps more readily understandable, we must also be calling for the abolition of policing in schools more broadly. The abolition of policies, practices, and structures that facilitate and support the narrative that Black students are a problem. The abolition of a system that uses our tax dollars to wield both tasers and textbooks against us. The abolition of the pipeline that funnels our babies from classrooms to cages.

Renowned Black feminist activist and scholar Angela Y. Davis recently remarked that “abolition is really about rethinking the kind of future we want.” What we want is for schools and classrooms to be spaces of love. Not just a love for the Harlem Renaissance or the civil rights movement but love for loud colors and loud voices. Love for sagging pants, hoodies, and corner store candies. Love for gold grills and belly laughs on hot summer porches. We want schools to be sites of struggle, to engage with Black folks’ historical and contemporary yearning to be at peace. To seek refuge from an anti-Black world, where Black children can dream weightless, unracialized, and human. Where language flows freely, where existence is nurtured and resistance is breath. Where the Black educational imagination dances wildly into the night — quenching the thirst of yearning and giving birth to becoming.

kihana is an assistant professor of Black Studies at Northwestern. She has published in the New York Times, Colorlines, The Hill, and in academic outlets.

Get the Medium app