A few weeks back, at a meeting I had to miss because of illness, the school board discussed the district’s relationship with the local police department.
The police department had been running a program in which it sent a representative into elementary schools to eat lunch with the kids. The program’s stated goal was to “maintain a positive, visible presence in the community, establish and maintain relationships in the community and hopefully open up broader communications channels.” The district tried to formalize some aspects of that program through a written agreement with the police department, and the department took offense at the district’s proposal that the “outreach assistant” not wear a uniform. The police department then decided to suspend the program and to stop any “self-initiated” visits to the schools until it received an explicit invitation to continue from the school board. At the November 22 work session, the board agreed to invite the police department to continue its outreach program and to resume “business as usual” with self-initiated visits.
I can understand the appeal of enabling kids to have positive interactions with police, whom some kids might otherwise view fearfully or in a negative light. And I know, like, and respect Henri Harper, the outreach assistant under the program. But I do have concerns about the larger issue; anything the district does on this issue will set a precedent that will apply not just to Henri Harper and not even just to police departments.
First, it was not clear what police self-initiated “business as usual” in the schools entails. The board asked for a follow-up report summarizing the police department’s activities in the schools, but I would have wanted to know what “business as usual” meant before formally inviting its return. As to “self-initiated” police visits to the schools, I wrote about several concerns here.
Second, although the department has said that the outreach assistant is “not a sworn officer and does not have any enforcement capabilities,” it’s not clear exactly what that means. I assume he cannot arrest people? But what happens if a kid mentions, for example, that one of his parents was smoking a joint? I have to think that the outreach assistant has the power to notify his department of criminal activity, and, if necessary, to testify in court. The outreach assistant works for the police department, not for the school system; the school system would have no control over how the outreach assistant handles a situation like that one. I’d prefer to have that kind of decision made by school officials.
Third, there are many organizations that might be happy to send representatives into our schools to counsel and build relationships with students. The Chamber of Commerce? The American Civil Liberties Union? The U.S. Army? Planned Parenthood? Many of them could make persuasive arguments about why students would benefit from knowing more about their organizations and what they do. The district needs to have a consistent approach to handling such requests. At the very least it makes sense for the district to want to vet such interactions and reach agreements about the content. But at some point I wonder how much it should be the district’s job to provide audiences for the outreach efforts of outside organizations, no matter how worthy the cause.
Most of the schools in the police outreach program have a high proportion of black and African-American students, and the elephant in the room that went undiscussed at the board meeting is the troubled relationship between law enforcement and racial minorities in America. The police department is a law enforcement agency. It is the entry point to our very imperfect criminal justice system. That system currently incarcerates and disenfranchises black Americans at an unbelievably high rate. On the one hand, proponents of the outreach program may hope that it will help improve the way the justice system interacts with minorities. But, especially for minority parents, the question of what children should be taught to think about the police (and about the larger criminal justice system) is a very complicated one that does not have an objectively correct answer. Just consider some of these examples of “the Talk”—the advice that many black parents feel they have to give to their kids about interactions with the police.
I don’t know the “right” way to approach that topic, and I don’t particularly trust the school district to know either, especially if its only approach is to provide the perspective of a representative of the police department. (Again, no offense intended to the current outreach officer here; but we don’t know who the next representative, and the next one, and the next one will be.) For that reason, at the very least it would make sense to limit participation in the program to kids whose parents explicitly opt them into it.
Readers: What role do you think the district should take in teaching kids about race and our criminal justice system?