Decriminalise the classroom

By Mike Phipps

The number of school-based police officers (SBPOs) across Greater Manchester is significantly increasing.  This is happening without proper consultation either with parents, teachers, young people, or wider communities. Decriminalise the classroom:  A Community Response to Police in Greater Manchester’s Schools is a new report – the most comprehensive of its kind in the UK – raising important concerns about this. It surveyed hundreds of affected people and reaches some significant conclusions.

Almost 9 out of 10 survey respondents reported feeling negative about a regular police presence in schools. Almost 3 in 4 parents or guardians stated that they would have concerns about sending their children to a school with a regular police presence.

There is real concern that SBPOs are disproportionately placed in schools with a high proportion of working class students and young people of colour. Respondents to the survey believe that extending this will exacerbate existing inequalities as well as stigmatising the school. “I can’t imagine private schools or grammar schools will have a police presence, although from experience I know that there is just as much, if not more, violence and drug misuse in these settings,” said one parent.

More alarmingly, responses from young people who attend schools in Greater Manchester with a regular police presence suggest that officers act in ways that discriminate against students of colour, and particularly Black students.  One student responded: “The police have historically shown racial and class prejudice in relation to overpolicing and I believe it would be inevitable that they would do the same in a school environment.”

Concerns were also raised about the negative impact that police in schools can have on disabled, LGBTQ+, Muslim students, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students, as well as women and girls.

Survey responses also showed that the presence of police in schools creates a climate of fear, anxiety and hostility for young people, particularly for those that are already marginalised.  Many are concerned that it exacerbates the risk of minor disciplinary procedures escalating into criminal justice issues.  “On one instance dogs were brought in to sniff everyone in assembly to check for drugs,” reported one student. “That would have been scary… some of them were still quite young.”

Young people reported experiencing inappropriate police conduct in schools, including the use of offensive language (some called students ‘sluts’ and ‘slags’), sexist victim blaming, the sexualisation of young people, and the communication of misinformation about sex education. Police harassment was also raised as a concern. Furthermore, police officers in schools are often engaged in work – including teaching and mentoring – for which they are ill-equipped and poorly-suited.

There are clearly other options to putting police in schools. More pastoral support, mental health, disability and learning support are needed. As US activist Angela Davis says “If we want to break the school-to-prison pipeline, if we want to abolish the prison-industrial complex, if we want to create schools that nourish the intellectual imagination of younger generations, then we have to dismantle the structures and ideologies of racism, and we need to start right now.”

In the US, where armed police routinely patrol school corridors, there have been widespread concerns about anti-black prejudice and inappropriate force. In Texas, the schools-to-prison pipeline is all too real for the hundreds of schoolchildren who appear before courts each day, charged with offences such as swearing, misbehaving, wearing “inappropriate” clothes and being late for school.

Could that happen here? The report concludes that there is a danger that “our schools are being turned into places of surveillance, criminalisation and punitive authoritarianism – rather than supportive learning environments from which young people prosper.” As far as Greater Manchester is concerned, Kids of Colour and Northern Police Monitoring Project will continue to campaign for #NoPoliceInSchools.

For more information and to download the report, see https://nopoliceinschools.co.uk/