A 14-year old student in Irving, Texas made headlines after being put in handcuffs for bringing a suspected bomb to school. Ahmed Muhammed was trying to excitedly show his English teacher his most recent invention when she told him it looked like a bomb. He was later brought into custody and suspended for three days after the school and law enforcement authorities asked him “So, you tried to make a bomb?” The story is an unfortunate reality behind many student and police interactions.
Andrew Hairston, the director of Texas Appleseed’s Education Justice project, has had a long and fulfilling career working within legal activism. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with him about his move to Texas and his work with Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization determined to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline through advocacy and data-driven research. The Texas Appleseed project is just one of 17 Appleseed centers across the U.S. and Mexico. Appleseed works with a network of pro bono legal partners that focus on discriminatory legislative bills like Senate Bill 2432, which increases schools’ abilities to send students to disciplinary alternative education programs. These alternative education programs, commonly called DAEPs, are often completely segregated from normal campuses and have been identified as a leading cause of student dropouts. Texas Appleseed’s Education Justice project aims at dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, a system that disproportionately pushes underserved groups out of classrooms and into contact with law enforcement.
Hairston’s warm, full-bodied voice echoed over the phone as he sat on the porch of his family home to talk with me about his work. Hairston started as a public defender, and went on to work as a staff attorney for the Advancement Project, and began his legal career on the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. He came to Texas Appleseed to be closer to his family in Oklahoma City, and as we talk he tells me that he has enjoyed spending time with them during the pandemic. He has since returned to Austin in April. “I was in law school in Baton Rouge during the Ferguson uprisings, but I was particularly drawn to that racial justice movement because my family and I lived in Florissant, Missouri (an adjacent suburb) from 1998 to 2004.”
Middle and high school students are punished for age appropriate behavior by the carceral system instead of traditional school discipline. Kids acting out is nothing new, but increasingly they are criminalized for normal adolescent responses and jokes such as pointing a banana at a fellow classmate and saying “bang”. Hairston describes this as manifesting most often in exclusionary discipline and school policing. Shockingly, even students as young as Pre-K to second grade are increasingly subjected to police presence at school. One of Texas Appleseed’s recent achievements was an Austin ISD School Board ban on the suspension of kids below third grade, but there is still an exception for incidents involving physical danger.
Hairston believes that the fight for education justice is in tandem with the current fight for police abolition. School police officers exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline, and Hairston has a clear message about reform: police officers should be out of schools entirely.
The History of the Carceral System and Public Education
I asked Hairston about the history of police in schools, and he described the 70-year legacy of the carceral system. In 1950s Michigan, police were brought into schools in response to the civil rights movement to uphold law and order in the face of radical social change. They were trying to counter a negative perception of police and foster better relationships with youths in the school system. Internal police departments that aim to make students safer have the opposite effect and have done little to improve the negative perception of police they initially responded to in the 1950s.
Since the Columbine shooting, there has been a marked increase in the militarization of schools. Many of these School Resource Officers (SROs) may give parents and other adults a false sense of security but do little to curtail actual systemic problems within the school system. Fourteen million kids attend schools that have a police presence but no guidance counselor, nurse, or social worker. Instead, zero tolerance policies aimed at protecting students punish them for anything that could be perceived as a threat. Although constant police presence is not common at the elementary level like it may be at the high school level, some agencies, like the Round Rock ISD Internal Police Department, have argued for constant presence to prevent large acts of violence.
How the School-to-Prison Pipeline Affects Students
The presence of law enforcement in schools escalates normal adolescent behavior into criminal activity. Situations that would typically be handled by a phone call home or administrative action are increasingly handled by SROs, and students are criminalized for trivial infractions like “disturbing the school”. In 2007, a sixth-grade girl in Katy, Texas, was arrested for writing “I love Alex” on a locker room wall. In Tomball, Texas, a 10-year-old boy was threatened with felony charges after pulling a fire alarm. These punishments often increase the amount of time a student spends outside of the classroom, and alternative education programs like DAEPs can set a student back in their learning. Many activists have also pointed out that the lack of accountability surrounding DAEPs is a cause for concern because it is hard to determine exactly what students are being taught within these programs. Students as young as six years old can be handcuffed for standard schoolhouse infractions, a situation that is terrifying and detrimental for any individual, let alone a young child.
Many have argued for increased police presence in the wake of Columbine and Parkland. Hairston points out that while most of these acts of violence are perpetrated by white assailants within upper middle-class white communities, SROs are concentrated within Black and Latino communities. The empirical data shows no measurable results of SRO presence and prevention of drug use or violence in schools. Moreover, even in cases when schools have an established police presence, officers have failed to prevent acts of violence from occurring. Instead of ensuring students’ safety, these officers have a disproportionately negative effect on minority students within the school system, pushing them into contact with the prison-industrial system at an early age.
Students of color and disabled students are disproportionately likely to receive some sort of law enforcement referral for age appropriate behavior. These punishments are for discretionary or not legally obligated offenses like student code of conduct violation. Contact with the court and legal system at such a young age is not only linked with worsening long term student outcomes like increased dropout rates but can also stigmatize students and cause them to withdraw from their peers and community. In addition, School Resource Officers, the most common type of law enforcement within schools, do not receive any special training on how to handle kids. While many proponents of internal ISD police departments argue that they will be trained by the district, this does not address the root problem of criminalizing youth. Kids often lash out when they are upset, and elementary schoolers are the age group most likely to make threats to “kill”. What is often deemed violent or threatening by the carcel system, is oftentimes normal adolescent behavior that needs to be corrected in a school context, not a legal one. Overall, Hairston’s work demonstrates that this is not an ambiguous social issue. Texas Appleseed’s data-driven reports have proven time and time again that police presence in schools does more harm than good.
Continuing the Work in the Fight for Education Justice in Texas
In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Tamir Rice, and countless others within the increasingly violent carceral system, many schools have chosen to remove police from their hallways. The Minneapolis school board was one of the first to end their contract with law enforcement, and school boards in Seattle, Portland, Charlottesville, and Rochester have followed suit. Texas, however, tells a different story.
Many schools in the Austin area still have contracts with law enforcement or are seeking to create their own internal police departments. Lake Travis ISD, for example, is considering creating an internal police department. Lake Travis High School already has School Resource Officers, a drug dog, and most students are accustomed to law enforcement presence at their school. While the district has been struggling to fund certain art programs — when I attended just a few years ago, the art department could not afford paper, and teachers were told to ration their copies — it is looking at increasing its expenditures on policing.
In the 86th legislative session, two important Senate bills were passed in the Texas Capitol: Senate Bill 11, which creates a threat assessment team designed to examine threats of harmful or violent behavior, and Senate Bill 1707, which clarifies the role of police in schools. Senate Bill 1707 states that school police officers are not meant to be involved in the routine discipline of students and requires schools to write out the roles and responsibilities of officers. While these bills are certainly a success for Texas Appleseed, Senate Bill 2432 demonstrates that the fight for education justice is far from over. Senate Bill 2432 allows school districts to send students to DAEPs for indiscriminate amounts of time for “harassing a staff member”. DAEPs are extremely detrimental to students’ education and are a prime example of the school system’s capacity to punish students in disruptive ways. Discrepancies in the ways schools report disciplinary actions make it difficult to track how this affects minority students.
Texas Appleseed will continue to push back against punitive bills in the Texas Legislature while encouraging a series of systemic changes within the school system. It will encourage schools to move away from zero tolerance and exclusionary discipline, end out of school suspensions for many students, and remove contact between students and law enforcement wherever possible. Instead, Texas Appleseed empowers school districts to implement school safety measures that consider student and staff needs and expand the number of school professionals like nurses and psychologists. It also encourages families to advocate for students of color, especially when they interact with law enforcement or the newly instated threat assessment teams. As Texas reopens and looks forward to resuming post-pandemic life, Hairston emphasizes that despite the sobering uncertainty of the recovery, advocates will “remain tireless in our efforts to secure equal educational opportunities for all children.”