The horrifying abuse of Child Q should catalyse the end of police in schools
The relationship between police and the education system is being debated again, after a review published earlier this month. A Child Safeguarding Practice Review details the Met police’s strip search of a 15-year-old Black girl (Child Q) at her school, without the presence of an appropriate adult or parental consent and with the knowledge that she was menstruating.
The Review found that “racism (whether deliberate or not) was likely to have been an influencing factor in the decision to undertake a strip search.”
The devastating impact of the incident was noted by Child Q’s aunt in a letter to the Review. As she put it, Child Q “is now self-harming and requires therapy. She is traumatised and is now a shell of the bubbly child she was before this incident.”
Amidst a backdrop of mobilisation against police institutional racism and misogyny in recent years, the case of Child Q should spark a reckoning with the harms of policing generally, and with regard to the presence of police in schools specifically - whether they are called in by teaching staff for specific incidents or stationed there as school-based police officers. As shocking as it is, this is sadly far from the only example of harms caused by police in schools.
Police in schools: the context
The presence of police in schools is not new. The practice has a history dating back to at least the 1950s, emerging from the State’s interlinked concerns around Black communities and youth populations. It was in 2002, however, in the midst of New Labour’s racialised ‘tough on crime’ agenda that police began being placed directly in schools.
As both the current government and opposition compete to be ever tougher on crime, we see increased support for police in schools from across the political spectrum – from Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham, to the Children’s Commissioner, and former Head of the Met Police. The demand for police in schools doesn’t occur in a vacuum but rather forms part of a wider package, which comes hand-in-hand with increased police funding, more police officers, expanding police powers, and more prison places. At the root of it all is the faulty logic that suggests police and prisons can solve social problems.
According to the most recent count, there are currently 683 officers in British schools. This figure only paints a partial picture, however. There are a whole range of relationships and programmes that see police officers working in schools, often in ways that are not easily enumerated.
The Government’s recent Inclusive Britain plan, published in the same week as Child Q’s case came to light, contains worrying proposals to increase police presence in schools including through the extension of the so-called ‘Mini Police’ (volunteer police cadets) programme .
Police in schools: the harms
In addition to the case of Child Q and other high profile stories - including a video of a ‘safer schools’ officer assaulting a 10 year old autistic boy, and legal action initiated against the Metropolitan Police by the family of a 14-year old Black autistic boy - there is a growing body of evidence of the harms caused by police in schools.
Police are disproportionately placed in schools with high proportions of working class students and young people of colour. Data shows they are likely to be based in schools with higher levels of pupils eligible for free school meals. The accounts of young people suggest that police officers act in ways that discriminate against minoritised students, particularly Black, Asian and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller students, Muslim students, disabled students, LGBTQ+ students, and girls. This is a concern for teachers too. As the case of Child Q and others show, those at the intersections of these groups are particularly vulnerable to police harm. Indeed, when police enter into schools, we see – as in the case of Child Q – the coming together of institutional racism within the police and institutional racism within schooling.
Whether through specific school-police programmes, or more general school reliance on police, the increasing presence of police in schools is a slippery slope. It creates the conditions for minor discipline problems to needlessly become criminal justice issues. Problems that would be best dealt with through supporting children - through supportive counselling and mental health support, for example - are increasingly becoming the purview of the police.
Time and time again, police institutions have proven themselves ill-equipped to deal with the issues so many young people face. Criminalisation limits young people’s educational and employment opportunities, feeding a school-to-prison pipeline that unfairly impacts upon working class and racially minoritised young people.
For these reasons and others, the Sociologist Jas Nijjar has aptly described police-school partnerships as part of a “war on Black youth”.
So, what is to be done?
The momentum to remove police from schools is growing. In the UK, the Greater Manchester-based No Police in Schools campaign successfully prevented the placement of 20 new School-Based Police Officers in 2021, while several branches of the National Education Union passed motions opposing police in schools. And in recent weeks, demonstrators have taken to the streets, including in Hackney and Manchester, in solidarity with Child Q and to say ‘No Police in Schools!’
In the United States, the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has amplified calls to abolish “school resource officers”, leading a number of school districts to end police-school programmes.
More widely, action led by Sisters Uncut has seen a proliferation of Copwatch groups forming across the UK and groups like No More Exclusions continue to highlight the profound harms facing young people in our education systems. The abuse of Child Q also led to a coalitional End Strip Search campaign.
These movements are not only about tearing down systems that do not work but about building new systems that place community visions of care at the centre. Given the mental health crisis facing young people, imagine if the money spent on police in schools was instead used for racially literate counsellors, or on reducing classroom sizes, and reopening libraries, and youth and community centres.
As these movements continue to grow, we hope more and more will join us in imagining brighter futures for our young people.
This blog is an adapted version of a piece first published in The I.
Remi Joseph-Salisbury is a Presidential Fellow in Ethnicity and Inequality at the University of Manchester. He is part of the Northern Police Monitoring Project and the No Police in Schools campaign, and is co-author of Decriminalise the Classroom.
Laura Connelly is a Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Sheffield. She is co-author of Decriminalise the classroom: A community response to police in Greater Manchester Schools and organises with Northern Police Monitoring Project and as part of the No Police in Schools campaign.