Criminal Justice

Over-policed and under-protected: the road to Safer Schools

Written by:
Runnymede Trust
Read time:
15 minutes

Over-policed and under-protected: the road to Safer Schools

Safer Schools Officers (SSOs) fail to support a safer school environment, particularly for Black and ethnic minority children who are already over-policed and under-protected.

Freedom of Information requests made by the Runnymede Trust of 45 police forces show that there are 979 police officers operating in UK schools. This reveals that the full scope of police presence in schools is 43% greater than previous figures have suggested.

In 'Over-policed and under-protected', our analysis shows that:

  • Police officers are more likely to be based in schools in areas with higher numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals, which correlates with higher numbers of Black and ethnic minority students.
  • Half of SSOs, or their police force-based equivalents, are based in London.
  • Across the UK there are plans to further increase the number of SSOs by 7%.

In the wake of the Child Q scandal, and recent research showing that Black boys were the target of 58% of all strip searches conducted by the Metropolitan Police between 2018-2020 (rising to 75% for 2018 alone), this new data on the growing levels of police presence in schools is concerning.

By bringing the criminal justice system into schools, the placement of SSOs can facilitate the school-to-prison pipeline for many Black and ethnic minority young people. Given these disproportionalities and the over-policing of Black and ethnic minority children, ‘Over-policed and under-protected’ makes a series of recommendations regarding police presence in schools and the use of strip search on children.

Illustration (and cover illustration) by India Joseph

The Runnymede Trust recommends that:

  • The government should end the power of the police to strip search children.
  • In any rare instances where the strip search of a child is essential, police forces should enforce their own rules and ensure an appropriate adult is always present.
  • The government should require all police forces in England to discontinue any further participation in Safer Schools Partnerships and withdraw Safer Schools Officers from schools as their presence disproportionately impacts Black and minority ethnic communities and fails to support a safer school environment.
  • The government should invest greater funding in local authorities and schools so that they are able to provide appropriate levels of pastoral, mental health and extended youth service provision to safeguard and support children in schools.

Dr Shabna Begum, our Head of Research, said:

“It is deeply concerning how normalised police presence in our children's schools is, with no question over the highly racialised and damaging impact excessive force can have inside a school setting. As the mother of teenage children and someone who taught in a neighbouring school to Child Q’s, I find that 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. We know that Child Q is not alone and that similar accounts happen daily across the UK, disproportionately to young, Black children.
“These negative encounters lead to a process of alienating children and young people from the educational opportunities that they deserve and should otherwise be embracing. Criminalisation is traumatic, not inspiring. Our children need to be supported to believe they can achieve anything they want to in this life. We know their experiences couldn’t be further from this.
“The government has not been able to justify the value or efficacy of having police positioned in schools in any of the stated objectives from reducing youth violence to fostering good community relations, in fact there is considerable evidence to the contrary. To truly support our young people and reduce crime we need to discontinue the deployment of police in schools, and instead invest in pastoral care, counselling provisions, youth services and, more widely, reduce poverty and deprivation as measures to support our young people, reduce youth crime and build trust in our communities.”
Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury, Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester, said:

“These figures show that the presence of police in schools is far greater than many thought. This is deeply concerning given the mounting evidence showing that police in schools have a negative impact on school environments, feeding the stigmatisation of schools, creating a culture of low expectations, and risking the escalation of minor disciplinary issues into criminal justice issues, particularly for those from minoritised backgrounds.
“To truly support young people, we have to shift away from punitive interventions and invest more positively in creating supportive, caring, and nurturing environments. We have to remove police from schools."

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