CTU protest photo

I’m a Teacher Who Wants Cops Out of Schools, And Don’t Bother Asking If I Was Assaulted by A Student

The current push to remove police from schools hits a nerve among some people, even some of my fellow teachers. When I talk about it, I am frequently asked, “Well, have you ever been assaulted by a student?”

Yes, I have, and that’s not the point. Usually, asking the question is a sign of white fragility and defensiveness. Here’s why.

This question presumes that Black and Brown kids are intrinsically dangerous. It presumes that restorative practices, when properly implemented, cannot be preventative. It presumes that school policing practices are not racially biased. It presumes that there is no correlation between violence and poverty, and how cities should be investing in communities that have been ignored for decades. It is rooted in a white savior ideology. It is presuming that the police have said anything other than, “So What?”, when they have rioted against peaceful protesters. It is presuming that police violence against Black communities is not a pandemic itself. 

So, yes, several years ago I was assaulted by a student, but my personal experience is not the point. White supremacy is based on focusing on individual acts and ignoring systems of oppression. It wants us to center on my experience as a White teacher, and ignore how police can instigate and perpetuate violence in schools. It ignores student voices who are advocating the removal of police from educational institutions.

Here’s a far more important part of the point: this question presumes that students with behavioral challenges are simply morally bankrupt. There is no systematic violence, no economic deprivation, no trauma, no denial of resources that could have possibly contributed to such behavior. The question also presumes that punishment is the only possible response, when educators have developed techniques to respond to even the most behaviorally challenging situations by focusing on relationships, not control. A focus on relationships rather than control creates cultural shifts in schools, informs practices that best support  trauma-informed pedagogy,  and demands we support educators in implementing restorative practices and new ways of teaching by providing quality teacher professional development.

Better to Ask My Students About How They Are Treated in School

Urban students aren’t naive. They see the difference in how they are treated in school compared to how kids are treated in predominantly white, suburban schools. Over the years I’ve heard students bluntly ask, “Why do we have to walk through metal detectors and white kids don’t?” Before the recent Black Lives Matter protests, students were discussing the anti-lockdown rallies where white “protesters” showed up to state capitols armed to the teeth. A student blunty told me that brown kids couldn’t do that.

Kids are acutely aware of racial perceptions. A black student interviewed in a recent Chicago Tribune article, asked, ““What are they keeping us safe from? Are they protecting us from ourselves?”

For years, students have lucidly expressed how structural racism has worked in their family’s lives. What they may not be aware of is the role that the state played for decades in creating  such conditions. As Richard Rothstein notes in The Color of Law, “The government was not following preexisting racial patterns; it was imposing segregation where it hadn’t previously taken root” (2017, p 14).

Whether it be the state enacting structural racism through housing conditions, defunding public schools, or through police terror, it is impossible to deny how systemic racism is deeply entrenched in America.

Just how bad is police violence? The president of the Chicago Police Board, Ghian Foreman, was recently beaten at a peaceful protest. If a man of such stature can be beaten while peacefully protesting, imagine the problems that can occur with youth. In a Chicago mall, two police officers dragged a woman by her hair from her car and smashed her windows, and the police union president responded that they “responded 100% appropriately” and that, “when you are given a lawful order you need to comply.”

While these discussions are not new, they have been amplified under the death of George Floyd, as we see the call for black lives to matter on a global scale. On one hand, it is extremely disappointing that we did not have similar outrage over the other myriad of police killings of unarmed black people. Juxtapositionally, it feels like the movement has gained unprecedented strength, as urban cities are discontinuing their relationships with police in schools. Steps towards actual reforms look more promising than ever.

Now’s the Time to Put Down White Fragility and Listen

Once, when confronting a White former coworker on his racism, his defensive response was, “Do you realize how scary it is to be a police officer?” Hear the undertone:  White feelings are more important than black lives. Black lives simply do not matter. White fragility is a form of systemic racism and patterns of centuries of violence. American society has been constructed to place people of color on the bottom and white people on top. That includes White teachers like me on top and Black students, including those I have taught, on the bottom.

We need to implement what’s best for students, and discard White fragility in the process. Black lives are more important than white feelings. We must end white supremacy by removing police from schools.

Photo credit: Students Strike Back Facebook page.

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Mike Friedberg

Mike Friedberg has been a passionate youth advocate since 2007. He began working with students at a community center and has been a Chicago Public Schools teacher since 2012. He currently teaches seventh and eighth-grade science and has previously taught language arts. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two children. His writings can be found at livesleepteach.blogspot.com.