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“No Police in Schools”: What Happens When Teachers Act Like Police?

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As an educator, I have a conscious investment in the Education system. However, I’m also one of those people some would define as a “pracademic” (practitioner-academic) who still works within the fields he teaches about (in this context creative writing and history). Though with much of my writing having a socially scientific slant, I’m always thinking about education as a site of violence and liberation … most recently Child Q and the role of teachers possibly as police in disguise (at least in terms of thinking and culture). While I see arguments for removing police officers from schools, I wonder if that would do much … other than be a symbolic gesture. I do agree police shouldn’t be in schools, but the culture of policing is everywhere. The only thing that seperates police officers from others is the added state powers.

When Britons consider the problems with UK policing, I am uncertain if this stretches beyond the uniform to how some educators in schools and universities act like cops. Even after the Murder of Sarah Everard, there are many people who I have found struggle to contemplate that the main job of The Police is to uphold the status quo and that includes protecting property (i.e the streets) even if that means steamrolling The People from the streets (i.e protesters). Moreover, Child Q (a Black child) was brutalised by London Met in 2020 further discussed in a 2022 report while a Mixed-Race child (known under alias Olivia) was similarly brutalised in May 2022 strip-searched whilst on her period. There has since been a third victim shedding light on the extremities of London Metropolitan Police’s strip-search practices.

When I was a sabbatical officer at Northampton, I sat on a number of disciplinary panels where panel members questioned students with the same manner as a police officer. Considering these students were largely Black (in my experience) and the panellists white, these encounters always had very racist overtones. Talking to white students, the offenses Black students were punished for … white students would boast about even with staff knowing. Based on the 2011 census Black people are 3% of the population (the 2021 data will be different … whenever released). However, during my 2019-20 sabbatical year, investigated deaths after police contact were disproportionate (Andrews, 2016; IOPC, 2017/18). And while 3% of the population was Black, we also make up 13% of prisoners (Andrews, 2019: xxiii).

With many Black British students at Northampton from north and south London (where if you are Black, you are also at greater risk of being stopped by police), the fact these panel members acted like police simply adds harm revisiting the strained race relations between Black civilians and white institutions (including police, education, and healthcare). This also revisits the sociohistorical significance of the relationship between ‘white masters and enslaved Black people’ with the crimes of yesterday playing out today causing harm tomorrow. The recent Living Black report simply adds to that. And as an educator who does go into schools, I know policing does happen in classrooms whether those schools have police officers on site or not. As Carla Shalaby (2017) writes these students as:

“…the caged canaries, children who are more sensitive than their peers to the toxic environment of the classroom that limits their freedom, clips their wings, and mutes their voices.”

When I tell people (let’s be honest largely white people) that I am no fan of the Police, they often respond with individual positive experiences they have had with individual police officers as a way to silence my experience. Often along the lines of my dad’s a police officer and a good just man … how could you hate him? Silencing through “whataboutery” unwilling to acknowledge that race and policing has a British history to it that goes way back to at least the 1919 Race Riots. As historian James Walvin (1973) writes

“All neutral observers agreed that the black community was on the defensive and yet its members, in trying to defend themselves were arrested and prosecuted for their attempts at self-defence, while all but a handful of the white aggressors went unchallenged” (p207).

Generally, I need a very good reason to call the Police because I know even if you call them for help, they can turn on you (especially if you’re Black). I know if I call the Police to an incident, I am not only putting myself in danger but also every Black person in a two-mile radius in danger. Britain is not America and they do not have guns as standard issue, but we must also not pretended that violence begins and ends with guns. Yet, seemingly many white people I have spoken to seem to find it more difficult (in my experience) to consider the institution of policing and how that institution is violent and harms people (even post-George Floyd). Yes, Black people are disproportionately harmed but we must not pretend we’re alone in that. Whilst you can take police officers out of schools (and university … ahem), that ideology of discipline and control can still reside in staff when given power within spheres of influence.

The book Policing the Crisis (Hall and Colleagues, 1978) recognised a change in authoritarian measures levied against Britain’s Black communities that was largely done with public consent in the 1970s. The media took the role in narrating ‘social knowledge’ of street crime and created a mythology around the “mugger” which street crime was racialised against. Thus social anxieties around young people and “urban space” and young Black people (especially males) was viewed through. I see these social anxieties still playing out today as young Black children are policed in classrooms, not necessarily by police officers but by teachers maintaining “law and order.” This is further complicated by adultification where Black children are seen as older than they are – more “adult-like”, more “sexual”, more “mature.”

At a university level, I know this policing happens in housing and accomodation. Whilst as a sabbatical officer at Northampton between 2019-20, I spoke to Black students who had experienced racist incidents from Residential Life, and these students would not make complaints out of fear much in the same culture of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Jeremy Bentham’s “panopticon.” These students knew they were being watched and policed in different ways, but they could not point at the aggressor.

As Nirmal Puwar states

“There is an undeclared white masculine body underlying the universal construction of the enlightenment ‘individual’. […] In the face of a determined effort to disavow the (male) body, critics have insisted that the ‘individual’ is embodied, and that it is the white male figure … who is actually taken as the central point of reference. […] It is against this template, one that is defined in opposition to women and non-whites — after all, these are the relational terms in which masculinity and whiteness are constituted — that women and ‘black’ people who enter these spaces are measured” (Puwar, 2004: 141).

When I was sixteen, I was one of those students that was excluded (put in internal isolation for three days for talking in class … definitely a disproportionate reaction to the misdemanour). And here, I know this experience is relatively mild in proxmity to many of my Black peers at other schools who were being punished multiple times a week (and others expelled). When many white people talk to me about school, the common denominator is that it was somewhere they felt relatively safe. Now, I get emails from Black parents of Black children and white parents of Black Mixed-Race children about racism in schools and how the schools don’t do anything. The policing of Black racialised bodies within schools is a further discussion to be had, and my community in Northamptonshire is not beyond criticism.

The frequency to which I hear Black students are punished at school and university is alarming, not surprising to see the the crossover between race and prison … as well as neurodiversity and prison where those who are seen to be “difficult” invading the space of the classroom are punished: “we have, then, a public execution and a timetable, they do not punish the same crimes nor the same type of delinquent, but they each define a certain penal style” (Foucault, 1975: 7). In this context, Foucault was talking about the man who pulled a penknife on King Louis XIV. The man was publicly drawn and quartered. He is then compared to the schedule of a prisoner in the House of Prisoners eighty years later. Two very different punishments but both ultimately damaging in different ways and products of different épistemes.

However, what I draw from this is how in today’s society, difference is punished, and there is a longevity and immediacy to the punishment. For example, the school-to-prison pipeline sees a figurative drawn-quartering of its victims that sees children through mechanisms of punishment all their lives. If they do manage to escape the prison system, that record is held over their head. Our tendency is to see medieval punishments as less humane than today’s punishment systems as if there is such thing as “progressive” violence. Yet, things like social murder (hostile environment; austerity; Cost of Living) can be compared to a slow genocide while things like the British Empire are relegated as historical relics (historical indeed?)

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

With the de/underfunding of the police over the last decade (Fleetwood and Lea, 2022), the greater threat sits in ideologies of control which can be picked up by anybody. Norman Fairclough (1994) argued power is “implicit within everyday social practices …. at every level in all domains of life” (p50). Philip Zimbardo’s 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment is a another example. When ordinary people were given the simultative power of prison guards, that power went to their heads. Those who volunteered to be “prisoners” were subjected to that and some were traumatised. Except in schools, they are not volunteers. We do not actually need police in schools for the simulation of policing to be carried out, as teachers and other school staff can carry this out just as academics have done in my experience at university level!

The practices of prisons “… produces subjected and practiced bodies, “docile” bodies. Discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience). In short, it dissociates power from the body; on the one hand, it turns it into an ‘aptitude’, a ‘capacity’, which it seeks to increase; on the other hand, it reverses the course of the energy, the power that might result from it, and turns it into a relation of strict subjection” (Foucault, 1975: 138)

discipline and punish: the birth of the prison

Foucault also argued that since the 1600s, practices of pushing “obedience through discipline and routine” have pervaded through other spheres “as if they tended to cover the entire social body” (Foucault, 1975: 139). The dissemination of internal / external exclusions, detentions, reprimands, housepoints, praise for 100% attendance (as if students aren’t allowed to be ill?) For students with learning differences, neurodivergent (dis)abilities, physically disabilities, as well as those with mental-ill health (and more), this is also ableism practiced through the norms of the institution.

Schools prepare students for the workforce creating drones rather than full human beings. As someone that is also autistic, I remember my teachers centralising the ideas of “fitting in” and how I did not fit in with their aesthetic of existing in the world. There sits the epistemic violence where the mainstream knowledge of socialising children with other children becomes the be all and all. The routine of conformity culture and those who do not conform are disciplined and punished in various ways, where discipline to me in school was being forced to fit in (basically ABA [autistic conversation therapy]) and thus impeded my ability to construct my own identity as someone who is not neurotypical.

Ultimately because power is not exercised exclusively through physical dominance, but cultural dominance through the stories we tell and the images that get produced. We become institutionalised by the practices we have routinely been subjected to whether that be school or the prison, thus transforming ourselves – not into the best humans we can be as humans – but as “docile bodies.” Those of us that do put in the work of unlearning what we have been conditioned into are then stigmatised. We are seen as “agitators” and “trouble” as the institution protects itself. This unlearning is not bloodless and if we are to ever have a decolonial society, we must encourage and support those who go against the grain and the norms of our institutions. Not make examples of them (Ahmed, 2018; 2021).

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