The Time for Police-Free Schools is Now

An Open Letter to the People of New York

A youth organizer from Girls for Gender Equity speaks to a room of her peers.

We have the opportunity to welcome New York City students back into a school environment that is safe, ripe with needed resources and free of policing and surveillance. The pandemic laid bare the class and racial disparities in our city’s education system and it will have lasting effects requiring us to collectively reimagine what well-resourced and safe schools look like.

The emotional and mental well-being of our returning students, school climate and catching our students up academically should be the city’s number one priority. Over the past year, students have lost access to their school buildings, some have lost family and friends and some lost employment opportunities and took on new responsibilities in caretaking as families tried their best to navigate the pandemic. These experiences will shape how students show up in their new educational settings now and in the future.

At this moment, all of our efforts to achieve equity are interconnected.

If the Mayor plans to prioritize fully reopening schools in the fall with close attention to addressing students’ mental and emotional needs, cutting a proposed $40 million in services that funds social workers, restorative justice programs, and support for students with disabilities and an additional proposed $21 million for teachers overtime pay and support staff for after school programs, would make it nearly impossible to achieve those goals. Although New York State and it’s many school systems struggle to balance a budget with a major loss in revenue brought on by the pandemic, there are buckets of money that are being invested in systems that are obsolete and serve no purpose in the next school year and beyond. In this moment, our demands are clear — we need to divest from school policing.

The transition to remote learning facilitated a lapse in educational, emotional and mental health support for students. We continue to see a digital divide that pushes students behind academically and creates new ways to impose disciplinary action against students and families who experienced limited access to technology — action like allegations of educational neglect. Expectations of student productivity and attentiveness during class time placed burdens on families who did not have the space or capacity to support their children. For the first time, the population of public school students has dipped below one million. School communities are now contending with the impact of under enrollment on their school budgets, as the DOE looks to .

The matter of during this crisis continues to circulate the news. The fate of year-to-year or one-off initiatives and investments in social workers and supportive school staff are in jeopardy due to misguided budget priorities. This continuous divestment from our students’ education in order to cushion and enforce systems of policing has left our students targeted by a (hyper-resourced) carceral pipeline.

This past summer, young people witnessed the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement and the brutality experienced by their peers who were protesting for Black lives at home at the hands of the New York Police Department. The movement for Black lives and uprisings have awakened more and more students to the harsh realities of state-sanctioned violence. We cannot expect students to show up in their full capacity and feel safe in schools while uniformed officers parade their halls and enforce their authority to harass, detain and control.

Let’s be clear, this demand for police-free school describes schools free from policing, surveillance, and the cultures, habits, and tools of youth control. Schools should be addressing equity issues while using creative and transformative ways to resolve issues and be in community with one another, instead of criminalizing young people through its policies and practices. Advocates for police-free schools are part of a long history of abolition and anti-violence work and we believe that in order to keep people safe we must change the conditions in which harm and violence happen. Police-free schools look like people building healthy relationships with one another, learning and understanding why conflict happens, and knowing how to offer safe ways to address issues and meet people’s needs.

In January, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced “Closing the COVID Achievement Gap” as one pillar of his final State of the City Address.

Closing the “COVID achievement gap” in actuality means divesting from systems of harm and investing in practices that increase access to healing and support. Funding that goes to school policing is money not spent on a social safety net or students’ education. Consequently, young people, disproportionately Black and brown and low-income students, are being pushed out of schools and forced into carceral systems. The harmful interactions between communities and the police are not exclusive to adults. Young people have reported abuse of authority and instances of sexual harassment at the hands of school safety agents in their own schools. Transferring the School Safety Division from one agency to another does not absolve the agency’s role in the harm they have caused and will continue to harm our students. The presence of an officer, no matter who supervises them, and the refusal to reckon with the legacy of school policing, further entrenches a culture of punitive discipline and barriers to accessing education and other supports that will be especially essential next school year.

To anyone and everyone who cares about the students of New York City, believing we can have police-free schools is a first step. There must be a collective effort to support the dignity of students during this next budget cycle. There is no reform that will eradicate the culture of violence that is built into the role of law enforcement. The dismantling of school policing is the clearest way to tell students, “we care about your future”. We call on you to join together in community and call for the complete divestment in school policing.

Quadira Coles is the Policy Manager at Girls for Gender Equity, working on the Police-Free Schools Campaign.

Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) is an intergenerational organization committed to the physical, psychological, social, and economic development of girls and women