The use of deadly force by police on unarmed Black Americans has led to civil unrest and political pressure to enact comprehensive police reform. Given racial disparities, debates are also raging about the necessity and usage of school resource officers (SROs).
The term “student voice” has gained increasing attention as a phrase that describes the many ways in which youth might have the opportunity to actively participate in school decisions that will shape their lives and the lives of their peers. When placed into practice, student voice includes youth sharing their opinions of problems and potential solutions. It can also entail young people collaborating with adults to address the problems in their schools.
UNCF (United Negro College Fund) and VOICES Corp partnered to increase student voice and to honor students’ ideas related to school policing and school resource officers (SROs).
“UNCF offers considerations [for students, families and K-12 communities] when analyzing school safety.” said Director of K-12 Research at UNCF Dr. Meredith Anderson, who focuses on K-12 education for African American students. During a summer community conversation event on policing in schools with UNCF, The Mind Trust, and Stand for Children, Dr. Anderson also explained “We know that school safety is a complex issue and school resource officers are just one component. We know that schools often mimic what is going on in the external environment,” said Anderson. “We’ve seen reports of excessive force in schools just as we’ve seen in the public. In our joint UNCF report [with Howard University, Safety and School Resource Officers: Framing a Legislative Agenda] we cite Office of Civil Rights data where it’s reported Black and Brown students were physically and mechanically restrained more than their population size would warrant, more than two times their population size for Black students [being mechanically restrained]. So, we know that something definitely needs to be done.”
Dr. Meredith Anderson along with Allissa Impink, UNCF’s manager of Community Engagement for K-12 Advocacy and Kia Wright, founder and Executive Director of VOICES, an organization that uses different programmatic strategies and advocacy efforts to center the experiences of youth and to cultivate their leadership in VOICES’ work of changing inequitable systems that seek to exclude and punish, rather than support and heal youth and communities. UNCF spoke with three VOICES youth of color, all aged 15 – who – though, they are excluded from the traditional education settings are persisting amidst challenges and working towards their High School Equivalencies (HSE) and (General Educational Development) GED credentials with the support of VOICES Day-Reporting Program. VOICES Day-Reporting is utilized as a community alternative to secure detention, where youth attend the program Monday through Friday and participate in alternative education options, employment readiness, cognitive behavior therapy, art-based programming, and service-based learning.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Meredith Anderson: Do you feel like students, like you all, have a voice on topics related to school policing? Do you feel like students overall have a voice in these issues?
Marcus: Yeah. I feel like kids have a voice. I feel like some people that for me—that want to speak up, they should get their own time too.
Alissa Impink: Well, explain what in your mind—like, what does that look like? Does that mean just speaking up in classrooms? Does that mean they should be more involved in policy and political practices? What do you think?
Marcus: Oh, I don’t really know if I’m saying this right, but I feel like if a kid, like—like, when it’s—I say when it’s a vote on something, everybody, no matter what color you are, you should be able to say something, that you feel it’s right or you feel it’s comfortable.
Kia Wright: If it’s okay, I’ll ask a follow-up to the group. Do you guys feel like your schools ask your input enough on what should be happening at the school?
KW: No? Do they ask you guys about, like, what your concerns, any safety concerns that you guys have, or mental health concerns? Do you have those types of conversations with admin or teachers?
Mike: At my school, we kind of—in my eighth grade, we did. Like, usually, everything they did, they voted on it before … Like, it was a Google Docs or something, and you go in there and vote for it.
VOICES’ students—like many across the country—understand the value of their voices and want to be heard. The use of student voice is imperative and ensures that policies are not being done to students but with them.
KW: When you guys got in trouble at school, what happened? Did you guys get sent to a dean? Did they call the police? Can you walk me through what happened if you were to get into a fight?
Marcus: Well, if I was to get in a fight around parks, staff will break it up, and you get a suspension. But I feel like—can I express how I feel about that real quick?
I know some people can—some kids are built like a normal teenager, and some are built like kind of like adult. Yeah, and I feel like most of the time when I got in fights, it was a fair fight because both of us the same age, and we both was the same height. But I feel like they said I was like—I’m built a little bigger, a little buffer than—I’m not fat. I’m just built bigger, and I don’t feel like some of the consequences would be fair.
KW: Well, if I’m hearing you correctly, you said because you’re just a larger dude that you felt like you received a harsher consequence, just because you’re just built different. Is that correct?
Marcus: Yeah. It’s like—it’s like I’m—it’s like they say they think I’m stronger than a person because I’m like—I’m like—I’m kind of tall, and my shoulders are real big and stuff and my chest is big and stuff like that.
Marcus’ sentiments regarding the consequences being more severe given his size are not uncommon among young Black men. Black men are often deemed more threatening, which often leads to increased racial profiling, arrests, and discrimination. A Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article entitled, “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” found that African American boys, even those as young as 10, were significantly less likely to be viewed as children than white children.
Mike: Okay. I was—I was at school, and so, usually, when you get in a fight, they usually got two—like the school police officers, and they would be the first ones there. And they’ll usually grab you, but if like you were more aggressive, like if you—like when they grab you and you keep going, they usually, like, put you in handcuffs, but that usually never really happens except when it’s like a real serious fight. And you’ll just get suspended.
KW: Before that interaction, before you had the school police officer coming up and grabbing you in a fight, what interaction did you have with that school resource officer prior to that or any?
Mike: He was—he was cool because he knew my dad because he—He had already known my father, so he was really cool with me.
KW: Okay. So, you had a prior relationship with that school resource officer, right?
KW: Did all your peers have that type of relationship with the school resource officer? Is that common?
Mike: Some people because he—this school police officer in my eighth grade, he was a cool—he’s like laid back. He’s like a funny dude, like he’d crack jokes and stuff like that, but if somebody is serious, he’ll like snap out of that and he’ll be like doing his real job.
Mike’s point about his experiences with SROs underscores the importance of relationships at school. Students need to feel loved and respected by the adults in the building—from the SROs to the teachers and leadership. VOICES prioritizes the importance of relationships for students as an alternative to the school-to-prison pipeline. In fact, 91% of VOICES’ students do not re-offend compared to 66% of adolescents for the state of Indiana.
KW: Okay. That’s good. At least there was some effort and some intention made by that for what you’re experiencing and to build those relationships with the students. So how do students usually respond? You said sometimes they are fighting back when that’s your first initial person that you’re having contact with at that moment is this officer grabbing you. What—can you talk us through what that’s like?
Mike: It’s just like a shock because you just—like somebody grabbing you and like not tossing you on the ground, but like throwing you over like that. It just shocked—it just shocked me, like dang, because it just—because it hit you different.
UNCF and Howard University’s joint school safety report recommends expanding the Department of Education’s initiative on restraints to include a focus on racial disparities. “In 2019 the DOE issued a press release and report on inappropriate uses of restraints on students with disabilities. While this reporting is needed the same efforts need to be extended when we’re talking about the over-representation of students of color who are being restrained,” said Dr. Meredith Anderson.
AI: Do you feel that every student in your school has that someone who they feel safe who they can talk to? And if not, should that be a policy that should be reformed, more school counselors, more school therapists?
Marcus: Yeah. I feel like, yeah, there should be more therapists in schools because some of the kids they feel they need help and need help, they get their help, but it’s just the one kids that stay off in the back—you feel me?— and they’re going through a lot, and they’re on that edge, but they don’t speak up. And I feel like some people, some therapists should go around talking to every kid from behind closed doors so other kids won’t know their business, so they’ll feel comfortable speaking, because who’s going to speak the way they feel if they know there are kids around listen[ing] to how they feel? So, they only speak it, like, one on one.
AI: Being a former teacher, oftentimes I felt like it was my role and my responsibility at times to attempt to be a therapist or attempt to be a social worker. Do you think teachers who have that mindset should continue with that, or do you think we should be separated, just teachers should just be teachers and let therapists, counselors do what they are trained to do?
Marcus: I feel like—I feel like both is good because—because what if a person—can’t get to a therapist? They can always have a teacher to talk to. Top of that, that’s two good things. You got a teacher that helps you with your work, that wants you to be a better person. Then on top of that, to keep you even stronger, you got a teacher, feel me, talks to you about how you feel and what could you do better, you know.
The ACLU of Indiana reports, “When schools are under-resourced, students are over-criminalized, and Indiana schools do not fare well among national averages and recommendations for a number of school resources per student. Indiana schools have a student-to-counselor ratio of 532 students per 1 counselor, more than twice the recommended scale (250:1) and well above the national average (444:1). Similarly, we have 2,607 school psychologists per student, while the recommended ratio is 700:1 and the national average is 1526:1. Perhaps most disturbingly, nearly half of Indiana students are in schools with police presence but without a psychologist, nurse, social worker, or counselor.
Data shows that schools with wellness and mental health staff not only improve the health outcomes for those students but also heighten school safety. However, there is no evidence that police in schools improve school safety—in fact, in many instances, they are causing harm to our students.”
AI: How can we provide access and equitable opportunities to others in our community?
Marcus: Pass a message down. We can use some of the words that Martin Luther King said and bring them back out. I like the one where he says, “I have a dream.” If you have a dream, you live your dream out, because everybody have their ups and downs, but it’s your choice—do you feel me?—to complete your dream. If you put your mind to it, you can do anything. My mom always told me I was one of those kids that you don’t give up because if you give up, that means from you—you got a lot to lose. I lost a few things, but the reason I kept—when I kept going, I got more things back than I ever had. Stuff been stolen from me, but I learned. I learned to just do what I got to do for myself, show love to people, show respect, and when I lost something, I got more than I asked for back.
Marcus: Hey, did you all know that that was one of the—one of the golden rules in kindergarten?
AI: What are some final thoughts that you all can tell us? What are some final thoughts that you all would want to share with the community?
Marcus: I say that everybody should [show] mutual respect. Feel me? It don’t matter what color you are because, at the end of the day, we’re all human. We all the same. I know we might be different colors, but you feel me. Everybody deserves to be treated right…I think this world needs more love in it and more energy and good energy and positive vibes, spread out the world to make this world a better place, safer environment.
Allissa Impink is the Manager of Community Engagement, K-12 Advocacy | Development teams, UNCF. Dr. Meredith Anderson is the Director of K-12 Research, UNCF. Kia Wright, Executive Director, VOICES. Edits by Lauren Hall, Director of Youth Poet Laureate, Board Member & Consultant, VOICES.