Harvey Litzelman, a teacher in California, explains why police don’t make schools safe.
When he first entered teaching, before he ever got any lessons about teaching, he was shown a video about how to handle a school shooter. The video was called “Run Hide Defend.” It made clear that the teacher was the first line of defense for students.
Having taught in Oakland for several years after watching that video, I’ve seen very clearly how cycles of poverty, violence, and trauma manifest on my campus. I’ve seen students brutally attack one another; I’ve seen their adult family members join in. I’ve heard rumors and reports of weapons changing hands and threats of school shootings. And in every single instance, I’ve seen unarmed professionals trained to work with young people leverage the relationships they have with students to deescalate tense situations and repair harm after violent ones. Never have I seen a situation that would have been better handled by an officer of the Oakland School Police Department (OSPD) or the city’s Oakland Police Department.
The police do not keep kids (or adults) safe at school, whether from school shootings or any lesser offense. Teachers, support staff, and students themselves do. This is an argument that requires us to challenge the basic premises of modern policing. It is an argument that borrows from the long intellectual tradition of police and prison abolition, developed largely by Black women like Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba, and many others. But it is also an argument grounded in the lived reality of schools.
We must follow the lead of local organizers in Minneapolis, MN; Portland, OR; Denver, CO; Milwaukee, WI, Richmond, CA; and Hayward, CA, who have already convinced their school districts to cut ties with the police. We must unpack the privileges that let many of us feel safe around the police while many of our students do not. And we must do the creative work of abolition: building the institutions that keep us safe while dismantling those that do not.
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