The prospect of more police at schools is no comfort for Black parents

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It was the day after an 18-year-old gunman massacred 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Tex., and Shane Paul Neil kept imagining what it might have felt like if his 15-year-old daughter or 9-year-old son had endured that type of violence. As Neil sat in his home office in New Jersey, reflexively scrolling for new updates, he paused to read a Facebook post from his town councilman — an announcement that there would now be an increased police presence and more frequent patrols at local schools in the aftermath of the shooting.

Nothing about this news brought Neil any measure of comfort. Instead, as a parent of Black children, he found himself confronting the nexus of two uniquely American fears: the possibility of random gun violence, and the consequences of racially biased policing. He shared his reaction in a tweet that soon went viral: “As a black father I now have two potential threats to be concerned over.”

When Neil, a 44-year-old freelance writer and photographer, scrolled down to the comments unfurling below the councilman’s post, he was surprised — and somewhat relieved — to see that local parents were overwhelmingly opposed to the presence of more police officers. “For White parents it was, ‘we don’t want to bring more guns into school,’” he said. “For myself and other Black parents, it’s that we don’t want to force police interaction in school with our children in particular.”

In the aftermath of the rampage in Uvalde, Republican lawmakers have revived a familiar array of proposals: More police in schools. Increased patrols. “Hardened” campuses with more stringent security measures. Several conservative leaders, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, insist that arming teachers or school staff with guns might be the best way to guard against another mass shooting.

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But the implications of more police, or even the possibility of armed teachers, resonate differently for marginalized communities that already feel disproportionately targeted by law enforcement and school officials. Black and Latino students are suspended or expelled from school at inordinate rates compared with their White peers, and are also less likely to be placed in advanced classes or programs for gifted children. Federal research shows that even Black preschoolers are disciplined at far higher rates than White children. Black and disabled children are the most likely to be referred to or arrested by police, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

More law enforcement officers at schools, Neil says, means more potential for encounters with Black children that could go awry. “It only takes one incident for my son or daughter to have an arrest record, a juvenile record,” Neil says, “and those things stick with you, they follow you.”

Natalie Moss, 43, who works in intellectual property and patent prosecution and lives in Prince George’s County, Md. with her husband and their two preschool-aged sons, finds the idea of anointing teachers as de facto law enforcement officers disturbing. She thinks of her older son, who just turned 4: “There’s a culture of adultification bias against Black children,” she says. “They’re cute when they’re 2 or 3. But when they reach a certain height, it’s different. My child is in the 99th percentile for height — he’s on par with most 6-year-olds in terms of height, so when people approach him, they often think he’s older than he is, already.”

Moss knows what that will mean in just another year or two, she says; her friend recently gave her own young son ‘the talk’: “Types of toys that he’s not allowed to play with outdoors, types of toys that he can’t bring to school with him, certain things he can’t say,” she says. “The way that she wants him to interact if he does encounter law enforcement, because the ultimate goal as a Black parent is to have your child get home safe.”

It doesn’t help, she adds, that the credibility of the police who responded to the shooting in Uvalde has steadily unraveled, as law enforcement officials have made contradictory statements and changed their story numerous times. The failed police response is now the subject of a Justice Department investigation.

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“I think that what people have to pay close attention to is how these changing stories bring distrust in law enforcement, particularly in the African American community as well as communities of color,” Moss says. “I have all these questions. How do I know what’s true and what’s not? As a Black parent, what about any of this would evoke any level of confidence that more police would benefit my Black sons?”

Beatriz Beckford, national director of the social welfare organization Moms Rising, has spoken with her own son numerous times about what to do if he has to interact with law enforcement. She often acts as a drill instructor, giving pop quizzes on car rides to make sure her message is received.

They rehearse the scenarios; there is a script. “I don’t want him to forget,” she says. “I want it to become muscle memory so that when he’s in that moment, he hears my voice.”

If he is ever questioned by police, he is to keep his responses terse, saying no more than what is necessary. Name. Age. I do not consent to any search. Please call my parents.

“My fear is that in being his full, free self, which he has every right to be, that some police officer will see him as a criminal,” Beckford says.

Beckford, who lives in the historically Black Bronzeville section of Chicago, says her community is already “inundated with school police” and she’s heard horror stories, including one about an officer who zip-tied a student.

Finding a way to improve school safety is “complicated,” says Beckford, 41, adding that some parents have told her their children have had positive interactions with school resource officers. But that is the exception, she says.

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“There’s not enough space to dream beyond a world where we rely so heavily on police for everything,” she says. “We rely on them to discipline in the classroom. We rely on them to intervene when there’s a mental health crisis.”

As the debate about how to stop school shootings escalates, Ratasha Harley, a 37-year-old mother of four in Maryland and member of the advocacy organization Parents of Black Children, says she is dismayed but not surprised to see the perspectives of families like hers overlooked. She thinks of how she tried to rally community action following outbreaks of gun violence that affected predominantly Black neighborhoods in her area, those efforts didn’t gain much attention or support from White parents. She thinks of the White mom at one PTA meeting who, after recently proposing an active-shooter simulation drill in their school, said: Well, some kids already know what this is like, because they see this in their neighborhoods.

“Our parents remain voiceless,” Harley says. “Nobody is ever really saying: how is this going to affect schools that are predominantly Black, that have negative perceptions and interactions with police all the time, that have trauma from gun violence?”

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