When I started this series, it was before police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, before they tossed water to a white supremacist who had just murdered two protesters. That was only one week ago, but it already feels like forever-ago or, more accurately, feels like a version of this has been happening forever. I’m still trying to find a place in my brain for it. I’m stuck of course on the murders, and I’m also stuck on the face of that boy, so calm and safe and reassured, on the sickening defense offered by white nationalists comforted by the President.
I don’t have space or the ability at the moment to say something thoughtful about what this means or about what’s ahead in the fight for racial justice. Instead, I’ll point to something more certain, probably even obvious, that is nonetheless not said often enough: interactions with police in schools shape interactions with police outside of schools.
A few years ago, I wrote about the killing of Antwon Rose, who indeed was 17 years old when he was shot running away from police in East Pittsburgh. At the same time, Antwon’s school district was facing a lawsuit for fostering “a culture of abuse at the hands of high school administrators, security members and school resource officers.” In a protest for Antwon, a former classmate said:
“When you think about where Antwon went to school…he saw his friends getting beat up by these cops and how the justice system works against their abusers. Would that not inform your interaction with police officers?”
How could it not affect the way Black youth interact with police? When police murder Black people repeatedly, with limited consequence (if any!), of course it also plays a role in what larger society (including white boys with guns) think about whether Black lives matter.
Good history helps us see the present differently and opens up avenues for change. In part 3 of this series, Matt Kautz connects the dots between the origins of school policing and our more contemporary reality. See part 1 for Matt’s discussion of the racist origins of school policing in Boston and part 2 for his look at often untold history of the years leading up to Boston’s 1974 school desegregation order. As Matt has argued throughout this series: it’s not that we’re genuinely trying for “safety and security” and just falling short; really, it was about repression and violence all along.
Part 3 – Desegregation and the Permanence of Policing: 1974-1994, by Matt Kautz (Teachers’ College at Columbia University)
When Judge Garrity finally issued his ruling in Morgan v. Hennigan and ordered school desegregation in Boston, police were no longer strangers to the city’s schools, but they were not yet permanent residents. The court-order for desegregation, however, made them fixtures in an around school buildings. The vitriol of white resistance and its regular manifestation in violence jeopardized the safety of Black students. Therefore, Mayor Kevin White developed plans to deploy half of the city’s police force to maintain peace during desegregation, despite their previous violent handlings of civil rights demonstrations and their open support for anti-desegregation groups like ROAR.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, police disproportionately accosted and arrested Black youth, which augmented the discriminatory disciplinary practices of teachers and administrators, as seen in arrest records from that time.
The combination of suspensions, police presence, and arrests effectively pushed students out of school. Midway through the first year of desegregation, a second lawsuit sought to address the remaking of inequality during desegregation, including discriminatory discipline in the city’s schools. (See also: this exploration of how inequality was remade during Nashville’s desegregation era, written by Ansley T. Erickson, Matt’s advisor at Teachers’ College).
The new lawsuit named the mayor as a defendant, in part, to give him greater latitude in enforcing school safety. As a result, he made provisions to deploy 70 percent of the city’s police force alongside state troopers and federal marshals during the second year of desegregation. Eventually, the strain on the city’s police department spurred the mayor’s decision to create a new “safety and security” force to patrol the city’s schools, which they still do, to this day, in conjunction with the BPD.
The deployment of the BPD into the schools began as a means to repress Black student dissent and demands for justice. When police were stationed in and around schools during desegregation to keep the peace, their long history as a repressive force in Boston’s Black communities came with them. Despite the regularity of white violence during desegregation, school and city officials criminalized Black students as the source of disorders in schools. By the 1980s, teachers and security officers policed and punished the existence of Black lives in the city’s schools. As a result, BPS, like other districts throughout the country, became central institutions in spurring mass incarceration by pushing students out of school and into the criminal justice system.
The history of police in Boston’s schools can help us understand the necessity of removing cops from schools because it illuminates how their deployment is rooted in repression and exclusion. Moreover, it serves as a reminder of how city, state, and federal resources have been used to police and punish, rather than to provide promising pathways for young people. Yet, the future, like the past, is never pre-ordained and different paths lie ahead. Should we choose to invest in the limitless potential of students rather than police them, our schools might become sites for social transformation.