Last Tuesday, May 10, 2022, marked the first of several D.C. Council votes on the Fiscal Year 23 Budget and Budget Support Act (BSA). One of the most important decisions the Council made, in an 8-5 vote, was to maintain its commitment to phase out police from schools and replace them with non-police safety resources.
Last year, the Council unanimously passed legislation to gradually reduce the number of school resource officers (SROs) in D.C. public and charter schools, beginning July 1 of this year, eventually sunsetting the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) School Safety Division in 2025. The decision was largely informed by young people who, for years, have raised alarms about the negative impact of school police on their ability to learn and feel safe in school. Over the last two years, these students have met with District leaders and testified before the Council multiple times, detailing traumatizing encounters with law enforcement outside of and within their schools. They have held actions and shared stories with one clear message to District leaders: “Love us. Don’t harm us.”
Replacing police officers with non-police safety staff was also a key recommendation of the D.C. Police Reform Commission, an entity established by the D.C. Council to examine policing practices and provide evidence-based recommendations for reform. In its 2021 report, the Commission found that “racial disparities in school-based policing are pervasive and the harmful effects of police contact for school-aged children are significant.” Acknowledging that the presence of police in schools increases negative interactions between youth and law enforcement, the Commission concluded that District dollars currently spent on SROs (roughly $14 million a year) should be reallocated and invested in non-police safety staff better suited to fostering youth development and creating healthy school environments.
Ignoring this evidence and the voices of D.C. youth, in her FY23 budget proposal Mayor Bowser asked the Council to reverse course and maintain the status quo of keeping law enforcement officers in DC schools indefinitely. Thankfully, a majority of the Council rejected this proposal with their vote last week.
As several Councilmembers noted during last week’s debate, the Council made a commitment to both students and community in passing the SRO phase-out legislation last year. Reversing this decision would send the message that the voices and experiences of Black and brown youth don’t matter; it would also ignore decades of data showing that police presence in schools perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline, creates and stressful and punitive school environment, and does not meaningfully increase safety of students.
The #PoliceFreeSchools campaign isn’t just about removing SROs; it’s about creating a healthy school environment that’s conducive to learning for all students. This includes fostering trusting and dependable relationships between students and school staff that are not linked to the carceral system, investing in social-emotional learning, and providing support staff skilled in trauma-informed, trauma-responsive care and de-escalation. No matter how much additional training SROs receive before working in schools, they are no different from other police officers. As Councilmember Allen underscored at last week’s budget vote, SROs “went through their training to be a police officer, not an educator, counselor, or mediator.”
The debate around police in schools also highlights a larger problem with D.C.’s police-centric approach to public safety. What proponents of this approach are arguing for is the continuation of a failed system. Councilmember Robert White drew attention to this fact, pointing out that no SROs have actually been removed from schools, yet there is increasing concern about the spread of violence in schools, demonstrating that SROs are not effective at keeping students safe.
While we all share concerns about crime and violence in the District, decades of data and experience have demonstrated that we cannot police our way to safety. It’s time for a different approach, and we hope District leaders will continue to listen to young people most impacted and to prioritize the investments needed to achieve real safety.
If you’re looking for ways to plug into the #PoliceFreeSchools campaign, the latest initiatives the ACLU-DC is leading or supporting, and what’s going on at the D.C. Council, here are some upcoming events and resources:
- The Council takes its final vote on the budget next Tuesday, May 24. Tune in to that and other D.C. Council meetings and hearings—see the Council’s calendar for upcoming dates and access instructions.
- The Dream Up Police-Free Schools: Teach-In is on Thursday, May 26 at 5:30–7 pm. Register here.
- Join us for Virtual Candidate Forums as we ask D.C. Council At-Large and Council Chair candidates how they will help achieve community safety if elected to serve the District on Thursday, May 19, and May 26 at 6 pm. Register here.
- Call or write to Councilmembers in support of Police-Free Schools. Visit the Council’s page for contact info for all Councilmembers.