By Leah Kessler and Walker G. Harman, Jr.
On February 2, 2019, Chicago police officers assigned to Marshall High School repeatedly used a stun gun on 16-year old Dnigma Howard. When Howard tried to defend herself by grabbing the gun, a police officer hit her with his closed fist. As a result of this abuse, Howard suffered physical and emotional damages.
This serious and sad case raises the question as to why the police were stationed at the school in the first place—an issue Chicago Public Schools (CPS), like many other city school systems, has been grappling with for some time. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are approximately 50,000 officers and an 39,000 security guards working in the nation’s 84,000 public schools. “But having officers present in classrooms and cafeterias has created its own set of concerns — about the criminalization of typical teenage misbehavior, about the discriminatory enforcement of vague laws, and about the excessive use of physical force against children in school spaces where they should be able to feel safe,” said Emma Brown from the Washington Post.
Police in schools lead to a disproportionate number of minors from disadvantaged backgrounds becoming incarcerated due to increasingly harsh school and municipal policies, colloquially known as the “school-to-prison” pipeline. The numbers of police officers in schools first increased in the 90s when “zero-tolerance” policies were enacted, which criminalize minor infractions of school rules. This issue is just as much about race as it is about the abuse of police power. Brittany Packnett, a leader in the Black Lives Matter movement who also helms the St. Louis office of Teach For America, said:
The first time a lot of black and brown children experience police violence is in a school building. The first place that our children learn to fear police, learn they’re controlled instead of empowered, is in a school building, . . .[t]hat’s a perversion of the system of public education that we absolutely cannot allow, and that we cannot disconnect from this broader conversation about police violence.
Fortunately, civil rights organizations like the ACLU are committed to challenging the national trends of the school-to-prison pipeline and zero-tolerance policies.
Lobbying and activism, however, are not enough to protect individuals or children subjected to these punitive policies. If you or anyone you know has been the victim of police misconduct, contact the civil rights attorneys at The Harman Firm, LLP.