Opinion

Police have no place in our schools

Black and minority ethnic pupils are being overpoliced and underprotected in schools, race equality think tank Runnymede Trust has warned

schools/ police/ child q

Policing in schools is disproportionately impacting children in deprived areas. Image: Unsplash

Almost 1,000 police officers are stationed in schools across the country, new research has revealed. They are mostly in schools with higher numbers of Black and ethnic minority pupils and others eligible for free school meals.

The new research from the Runnymede Trust comes after a 15-year-old Black school girl – known as Child Q – was strip searched in her Hackney school. Black and minority ethnic pupils are being over-policed and underprotected in schools and we need greater investment in pastoral care and support systems, says the trust’s head of research Dr Shabna Begum.

It is now 10 months since the local child safety practice review about Child Q hit the headlines. Even for Black communities who have campaigned for decades against institutional racism in the police, the level of dehumanising brutality described in the report was shocking. 

What the Independent Office for Police Complaints merely called a ”regrettable incident” involved a 15-year-old child being removed from a mock examination by her teachers on what transpired to be totally unfounded suspicions. Dissatisfied with their own search, they decided to consult their ‘Safer Schools’ team, which advised them to call officers to attend from the local police station. 

The teachers then failed to meet appropriate safeguarding standards and left the child in a room, alone, to be strip searched by two police officers. These officers instructed the child to expose herself in ways that were wildly disproportionate to the original suspicion, even when she explained she was on her period. Child Q’s mother was not given the courtesy of a phone call from either the school or the police officers and only learnt of the incident from her daughter when she arrived home in distress. 

As a mother of a teenage girl, schooled not far from where these events unfolded, I find the details of what happened to Child Q chilling. As someone who taught in a neighbouring school, I find the 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. Shocking as Child Q’s experience is, we know she is not alone and that similar accounts happen daily across the UK, disproportionately to young Black children.

What happened to Child Q will no doubt leave her with scars for life. The failure of her school to provide her with basic safeguarding protections, and the dehumanising interactions with the police officers that showed no humanity for her age or proportionality for what was suspected, are failures that leave her suffering anxiety and ongoing psychological distress. 

But there is also a wider community scar that is unpicked by these events. The safeguarding report concluded that race was a likely factor in Child Q’s treatment. The hundreds of people who gathered outside the police station and the town hall directly after the news came to light had no doubt that race was a factor.

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As outlined in our briefing today, the historic and ongoing treatment of Black and minority ethnic communities by UK police forces is one of being overpoliced and underprotected. Child Q’s experience highlights how the creeping presence of police officers in our schools increasingly exposes our children and young people to racialised experiences. 

Schools that should nourish and support their students become collusive with the criminal justice system in ways that are more likely to harm children from Black and minority ethnic working-class communities. The staggering rise of police officers in our schools (43 per cent in just the last year), without any due consultation with communities is based on minimal evidence that it reduces crime or creates ‘safer schools’. 

Instead of criminalising our children there should be wider investment in pastoral systems, welfare and mental health support. Police have no place in our schools. We at the Runnymede Trust believe that the practice of using strip-searches on children has clear racialised dimensions and exposes our Black and minority ethnic children, in particular, to greater levels of harm. We therefore call for an end to the routine use of strip-searching on our children.

Child Q was failed by her school and by the police officers who robbed her of her childhood, privacy and dignity. It is imperative that no other child is exposed to a so-called ‘Safer Schools’ programme that leaves those same permanent scars.

Dr Shabna Begum is head of research at the Runnymede Trust

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