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Abolishing Policing in Schools

ECOLOGIES | Columns  }

M Tetrapod / October 16, 2021
Schools are intricately bound up with formal systems of policing and incarceration. Is resistance possible, or are the roles of ‘teacher’ and ‘cop’ too mutually dependent? 1677 words / 7 min read

Image: josie sparrow, after Lynn N Grundy


In 2020, as serious discussion of police and prison abolition entered the mainstream in new ways, I often heard the refrain: don’t fund police, fund education. If only we had fewer cops and more teachers, the argument went, we wouldn’t have this problem with white supremacist violence. The position is summarised well by Steffan Blayney in the previous edition of New Socialist: as Blayney describes, mental health services often occupy a similar position, ‘posited as a humane alternative to our brutalising police structures.’ Among those advocating this idea, Blayney argues,

… there has been a tendency to lean heavily on an idea of mental health services as we would like them to be, rather than as they actually are. If we are to think seriously about alternatives to policing, however, we must also think critically about the mental health system’s own relationships to structures of institutional racism, violence, and the state’s legitimate use of force.

We see the same tendency in discussions about diverting funding from policing to education. For the change to have any liberatory or radical potential, we need education systems which are functionally different from police forces. Unfortunately, this is not how education systems actually are. From police at the school gates to the everyday policing of children’s bodies—especially Black children’s bodies—schools are both allies of the police, and agents of policing themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, bringing abolitionist thought to education can be risky and difficult work. The small-c conservatism of the teaching profession, as well as increasingly influential far-right forces in education discourse, work to marginalise abolitionist positions, making them unspeakable. Most teachers stake their identity on being seen to do good in the world: many who condemned police violence in 2020 would balk at the idea that they may be complicit in similarly racist and violent systems. A crucial first step for abolitionist work in education, then, is to contest the position that schools can be a ‘humane alternative’ to policing in their current state — we must first acknowledge, and then resist, the ways in which schools police.

From police at the school gates to the everyday policing of children’s bodies—especially Black children’s bodies—schools are both allies of the police, and agents of policing themselves.

In the most literal terms, schools police because the police are in schools. In the UK, we may want to preserve an image of school police officers as a US phenomenon, but this would be false. Liaison schemes between the police and schools have existed since the 1960s, and in 2002 the ‘Safer Schools Partnership Program’ began to place police officers directly in schools. As noted by the No Police in Schools campaign in their Decriminalise the Classroom report,

It is noteworthy that the Safer Schools Programme was introduced in the context of New Labour’s ‘tough on crime’ agenda. This agenda specifically targeted Black and working class communities driven by the penal populist idea of ‘feral youth’ and ‘lawless children’.

No Police in Schools is a Manchester-based community coalition group led by Kids of Colour and the Northern Police Monitoring Project. Their report was issued in response to plans by Andy Burnham, mayor of Greater Manchester, to introduce 20 more School Based Police Officers (SBPOs) into Greater Manchester schools in the 2020/2021 academic year. The report found that an overwhelming majority (95%) of survey respondents from communities in Greater Manchester had not been consulted on the plans, and 71% felt ‘very negative’ towards the idea. Existing SBPOs, the report notes, are more likely to be placed in schools with higher populations of students of colour and working-class students: as one young person quoted in the report put it, ‘the police don’t have a role in schools. If they do then why are they not in Eton and Harrow?’

Of course, keeping police officers themselves out of schools is not enough: we must also work to undo the various ways teachers are forced to act as police themselves. The most widely known example of this kind of policing-by-proxy is the Prevent duty, which compels teachers to monitor students for signs of extremism, and report them accordingly. Publicly speaking out against Prevent is a dangerous act for a teacher — a commitment to resisting radicalisation is written into the teaching standards, the document on which our continued employment depends. Much of the resistance to Prevent has been led by those in higher education, such as the NUS Preventing Prevent campaign. The urgent need for renewed resistance to Prevent in schools was highlighted by the government’s latest guidance for Sex and Relationships Education in schools, which sought to strengthen the existing restrictions on “extremist” political positions, and provided specific alarming detail on what is perceived to constitute “extreme”.

Duties such as Prevent are clear cut examples of teachers’ policing function, but they are not the full extent of it. Much as we may want our students to enjoy their time at school, it is an unavoidable and fundamental aspect of our job that our students are legally compelled to be there. When we fill in the register, we are writing a legal document, with legally-enforceable consequences. All our relations in the classroom, then, are underpinned by this power imbalance — that we can leave, and our students cannot, under threat of their families being fined or prosecuted for truancy. While it is a parent’s legal duty to arrange ‘suitable’ education for their children, it is not a school’s duty to continue educating a student - schools can and do make use of permanent exclusion, whereby a student is expelled from their roll without any duty on the school to find them a new place to go. Like SBPOs and Prevent, permanent exclusion is disproportionately used against Black students and students with Gypsy, Roma and Traveller backgrounds, and we know that exclusion drastically increases the chance that a student will end up in the prison system as an adult.

It is an unavoidable and fundamental aspect of our job that our students are legally compelled to be there. When we fill in the register, we are writing a legal document, with legally-enforceable consequences.

Schools, then, are intricately bound up with formal systems of policing and incarceration. But even if we were to succeed in expelling all these forms of direct and indirect police presence in schools, we would still be left with all the ways in which teachers police social norms and enforce white supremacy and class interests, without any formal legal involvement. Extreme examples include behaviour policies at so-called (“no excuses” or “zero tolerance” schools, which compel students to track the teacher with their eyes, impose silence in corridors, and segregate students whose parents haven’t paid their dinner money bill to eat their lunch in isolation. Even at schools with a less explicitly compliance-focused approach, school uniform policies routinely police Black students’ bodies, taking an alarmingly obsessive approach to the minutiae of children’s haircuts. Schools also demand an increasing amount of control over students’ home lives, and families’ parenting approaches, attempting to dictate use of technology, diet, bedtimes, and other routines. Working-class parents, parents of colour, disabled parents, and parents of disabled children — and, of course, parents at intersections of any and all of these — are especially likely to have their experience and expertise questioned and undermined under the teacher’s assumed position of managerial expertise.

Working-class parents, parents of colour, disabled parents, and parents of disabled children are especially likely to have their experience and expertise undermined under the teacher’s assumed position of managerial expertise.

Where does this leave us in terms of education and abolition? As long as we remain teachers in the formal sense of the word, until schools as we know them are abolished, we cannot give up our positions enmeshed in this system of power relations. But how can we resist them from within? Is resistance even possible, or are the roles of ‘teacher’ and ‘cop’ too mutually dependent? I believe we can (and must) try. As well as lending our support and solidarity to campaigns like No Police in Schools and No More Exclusions who seek to extricate schools from formal policing, we must also work to resist the deeper, subtler policing tendencies within our roles and within ourselves. Rancière describes policing as the enforcement of a society made up of groups “tied to specific modes of doing, to places in which these occupations are exercised, and to modes of being corresponding to these occupations and these places”.1 Teaching is so often centred around this enforcement, to the proper kinds of person doing the proper kind of thing in the proper place—sitting in rows, appearing to listen, performing compliance. The ideology of the ‘thin blue line’, as summarised by Alex Vitale, asserts that “without the constant threat of violent coercive intervention, society will unravel into a war of all against all… police are the only force capable of holding society together.” So much of teaching as it currently stands replicates this logic, claiming that we must enforce compliance lest we are left with a society of lazy, out-of-control children and their neglectful families. We must resist this wherever we find it, including within ourselves, including when it comes from an apparently progressive impulse to ‘help’ which is in fact a desire to manage. As I have written before, teachers’ political organising can too often forget our position as members of communities, not regulators of them. We can and must assert the value of education, and advocate for the working conditions of educators, without staking our identities on our ability to control and punish. If we can do that, we might be able to offer education as a meaningful alternative to policing.

Further reading and actions:

No Police in Schools: Decriminalise the Classroom report

No More Exclusions: Why we need a moratorium on exclusions report and accompanying actions

Bettina Love. 2019. We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Beacon Press.


  1. Jacques Rancière. 2010. Dissensus: On politics and aesthetics. Translated by Steven Corcoran. London: Continuum, p.36. 


Author:

M Tetrapod (@pancake_puns)

M is a practicing teacher and a researcher whose work focuses on the philosophy and politics of education.