Written by:
Dr Shabna Begum

Over-policed and under-protected

Criminal Justice
Read time:
5 minutes

Over-policed and under-protected 

A new Runnymede Trust briefing reveals how the rate of police officers in UK schools is leaving Black and minority ethnic pupils over-policed and under-protected, as highlighted by the shocking Child Q case. Rather than criminalising our children, we need greater investment in pastoral care and support systems, and to address systemically rooted inequalities, says Dr Shabna Begum, head of research at the Runnymede Trust.

It is now 10 months since the Local Child Safety Practice Review about Child Q hit the news headlines. Even for Black communities who have campaigned for decades against institutional racism in the police, the level of dehumanising brutality described in the report was shocking. 

What the Independent Office for Police Complaints merely called a ‘regrettable incident’ involved a 15-year-old child being removed from a mock examination by her teachers on what transpired to be totally unfounded suspicions. Dissatisfied with their own search, they decided to consult their ‘Safer Schools’ team, which advised them to call officers to attend from the local police station. 

The teachers then failed to meet appropriate safeguarding standards and left the child in a room, alone, to be strip searched by two police officers. These officers instructed the child to expose herself in ways that were wildly disproportionate to the original suspicion, even when she explained she was on her period. Child Q’s mother was not given the courtesy of a phone call from either the school or the police officers and only learnt of the incident from her daughter when she arrived home in distress. 

‘Shocking as Child Q’s experience is, we know she is not alone’

As a mother of a teenage girl, schooled not far from where these events unfolded, I find the details of what happened to Child Q chilling. As someone who taught in a neighbouring school, I find the school’s negligence unforgivable.

But sadly this is the predictable outcome when schools and policing are allowed to integrate in such intimate and unaccountable ways. Shocking as Child Q’s experience is, we know she is not alone and that similar incidents happen daily across the UK, disproportionately to young Black children.

What happened to Child Q will no doubt leave her with scars for life. The failure of her school to provide her with basic safeguarding protections, and the dehumanising interactions with the police officers that showed no humanity for her age or proportionality for what was suspected, are failures that leave her suffering anxiety and ongoing psychological distress. 

But there is also a wider community scar that is unpicked by these events. The safeguarding report concluded that race was a likely factor in Child Q’s treatment. The hundreds of people who gathered outside the police station and the town hall directly after the news came to light had no doubt that race was a factor.

‘The creeping presence of police officers in our schools’

As outlined in our briefing today, the historic and ongoing treatment of Black and minority ethnic communities by UK police forces is one of being over-policed and under-protected. Child Q’s experience highlights how the creeping presence of police officers in our schools increasingly exposes our children and young people to racialised experiences of discrimination. 

Schools that should nourish and support their students become collusive with the criminal justice system in ways that are more likely to harm children from Black and minority ethnic working-class communities. The staggering number of police officers in our schools (43 per cent greater than we previously thought), without any due consultation with communities is based on minimal evidence that it reduces crime or creates ‘safer schools’. 

Instead of criminalising our children there should be wider investment in pastoral systems, welfare and mental health support. Police have no place in our schools. We at the Runnymede Trust believe that the practice of using strip-searches on children has clear racialised dimensions and exposes our Black and minority ethnic children, in particular, to greater levels of harm. We therefore call for an end to the routine use of strip-searching on our children.

Child Q was failed by her school and by the police officers who robbed her of her childhood, privacy and dignity. It is imperative that no other child is exposed to a so-called ‘Safer Schools’ programme that may leave those same permanent scars.

This article was originally published in the Big Issue. Dr Shabna Begum is head of research at the Runnymede Trust

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