Policing Schools and Dividing the Nation

10/28/2015 10:54 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2016
Blue light flasher atop of a police car. City lights on the background.
Blue light flasher atop of a police car. City lights on the background.

There is something inherently ironic about policing schools and students so rigidly.

While tragic events like the UCC shooting in Oregon remind us that we need clear plans to keep schools and learning environments safe, using law enforcement to patrol students for minor offenses is counterintuitive to learning. More importantly, it can be harmful for societal harmony.

This week we witnessed a young black girl being violently thrown from her desk and arrested on the spot. Her classmates and teacher watched the incident unfold on the floor of their classroom.

The statement released by Sheriff Lott read, "The student was told she was under arrest for disturbing school and given instructions which she again refused."

If smaller-scale school disturbances cannot be subdued by teachers and school leadership, but rather require officers to control them, the climate of a school is bound to be bleak. If students are forced to witness these events in schools, where they become most culturally acclimated, resentment towards law enforcement is bound to form at an early onset.

As racial tensions rise in this country, we must acknowledge that classrooms reflect the greater society. The classroom is an almost sacred place and we should seriously consider the roles of law enforcement within them.

If situations are non-dangerous excessive police force can exacerbate social pathologies.

The U.S has the highest incarceration rate in the world and schools directly feed the disproportionate rate of minorities arrested through the school-to-prison pipeline. Black or Latino students make up for 70% of in-school arrests.

Many argue that these groups are disproportionately involved in crime in this country, but federal data corroborates that these people are also disproportionately policed. A Pro Publica analysis finds that young black men are 21 times more likely to be fatally shot by police than white offenders, for the same crimes.

We helplessly witness a growing battlefield between police and citizens, with senseless deaths on both sides. Last week officer Randolf Holder became the fourth NYPD officer killed on duty in the last ten months. We also remember that in January officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were killed as they sat in their squad car.

In the midst of all this turmoil, to solely narrow the attention on police brutality is shortsighted. Law enforcement is but a subset of a larger American problem. Our laws are no longer as explicitly racist as is our handling of them.

Police enforce the law, but also mainstream ideologies. Coined by social philosopher Louis Althusser, police are a necessary Restrictive State Apparatus (RSA) to maintain order by reinforcing collective sentiments and cultural cohesion. Just by existing, our law enforcement should strengthen communities, using force wherever absolutely necessary.

But current uproars are the result of police performing a contradictory function: sharply dividing collective sentiments through their handling of recent cases. We are torn once again between those who see these matters intricately intertwined with race and class, and others who believe race and class are irrelevant here.

It is a fantasy to think that either side of this debate will concede to the other, or even that a truce will be reached. But it is unacceptable for these polarized conceptions to give way to any more continued, ruthless violence.

Louis Althusser also wrote about schools being the primary Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) in charge of evening out creases in the social fabric and developing an upright citizenry. Schools mold our youth to have an encompassing and patriotic worldview to handle our future problems. Schools nurture our children to become our future doctors, teachers, and police officers.

So when police are given authoritative command in schools, they interfere with the functions of both institutions. When children stand to get arrested for infractions like having a cell phone, neither system is able to do what it is supposed to: keep citizens safe and united.

Blaming these matters on simply the police or the schools results in a counterproductive "cop out." Working against these institutions will not change the practices and trainings of neither officers nor teachers.

We should work with both to try and see that there is a time, place, and necessary function of each, to allow them to do their jobs more fully and keep communities intact.