Debunking the Myths around Policing in Schools

 

So far we have discussed the history of Campus Officer’s in Scotland and the concerns around racist policing. In this post, we’ll look at some of the arguments which justify police in schools and how these often lack credibility, the root causes of youth violence and alternatives to tackling this.

 

As we touched on in Blog 1, the role of Campus Policing in Scottish schools has often been unclear. One of the justifications for employing Campus Officers (CO’s) in schools is that they serve an educational purpose by delivering sessions to pupils on topics related to their safety, e.g. keeping safe online, risks around drugs/alcohol. The likelihood of young people engaging in risky behaviours is often determined by factors such as mental health and past trauma but concerningly, CO’s do not receive bespoke training around these issues which can increase the likelihood of young people engaging in unsafe and unhealthy behaviours. An Evaluation of Campus Police Officers in Scottish Schools was undertaken in 2010, and key stakeholders were interviewed around their views on campus policing. It was reported that ‘The provision of training was generally felt to be limited and inconsistent, especially during the early stages of the initiative.’ Even more worrying is that almost all of the CO’s interviewed were involved in organising or delivering lessons with pupils.

 

The role of CO’s as educators in the classroom also poses a threat to young people who have had negative experiences of policing. Will this be a safe and nurturing learning environment for such pupils? Young people from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to have negative experiences of the police – overall stop-and-search rates between 2018 and 2019 show that Black people are now nearly 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people. The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, fuelled by the killing of George Floyd, led to worldwide protests which acknowledged the violence and harm of policing towards people of colour. For a young person of colour witnessing this unfold, classroom environments can become places of threat and surveillance due to the mere presence of police officers, rather than an empowering and safe space to learn.

 

It is also claimed that police presence in schools can help to ‘build positive relationships’ between the police and young people. This argument alone indicates an inherent flaw in policing- there is already distrust between young people and the police. If the state is truly dedicated to building a more positive image of the police force, then surely addressing the underlying causes of distrust would be a more sensible approach rather than merely embedding the police into learning environments and hoping this will bring about harmony. Historically, UK policing has been found to be institutionally racist (see the case of Stephen Lawrence) which has amplified the distrust between people of colour and the police over decades. As Alpa Parmar states:

 

Discriminatory police practice, evidence of under-protection towards Black and minority ethnic groups and the charge of institutional racism have resulted in a fractured and acrimonious relationship between the police and ethnic minorities.

 

This distrust has only been further entrenched by ongoing racist policing into this decade, such as increased levels of Stop and Search that disproportionately affect young people of colour, and harsher sentences that see young Black and minority ethnic people more likely to be sent to prison for offences than white defendants who have committed similar crimes. There are also substantial concerns relating to structural racism within the Scottish police system - a recent report from Dame Elish Angiolini calls for a fundamental review of the police complaints system within Police Scotland following the lack of transparency of the system after the death of Sheku Bayoh. How likely is it that young people of colour will trust a system which has consistently demonstrated its lack of care for people that look like them?

 

Part of the role and remit of CO’s across Scottish schools involves: assisting in reducing anti-social behaviour and youth crime, including offending by and victimisation of, young people within the cluster community. Policing is considered to be a remedy for violence and crime yet continues to neglect the underlying causes of violence. However, the root causes of violence are varied and complex, meaning punitive measures cannot (and often will not) provide a ‘quick fix’ solution. Young people may partake in ‘youth crime and anti-social behaviour’ for a number of reasons - perhaps they are a victim of abuse, have experienced parental separation or witnessed domestic violence. Or maybe they just feel misunderstood. If young people have witnessed or been victims of violence and don’t receive adequate support to cope with their trauma, it is likely they will re-enact the violence that they have experienced themselves. A reaction to trauma may result in more difficulty regulating emotions and behaviour, meaning anger and impulsivity can form a response. Providing trauma-informed interventions, building emotional intelligence and ensuring young people are given the space to heal are just some of the ways we can overcome childhood adversity and address the root causes of violence.

 

We also can’t ignore the socio-economic impact on youth violence. Following the financial crisis in 2008, the UK Government introduced their austerity agenda which saw youth services face some of the largest cuts of public services. Youth unemployment affected almost 1 million young people in the UK, and ethnic minorities were disproportionately impacted - in 2013, 45% of Black youth were unemployed, compared with 18% of the white population. The actions taken by the UK government only exacerbated the existing inequalities faced by young, working class people of colour. With already limited opportunities for education and employment, this group of young people saw university tuition fees tripled, jobs scrapped and the nurturing, safe havens of youth clubs being demolished. After creating more obstacles to access employment and education and taking away safe spaces, can the state really say they are shocked by the increased levels of youth violence over the past decade? Opportunity and hope are key for when young people enter and navigate early stages of adulthood, and even more essential for those that have grown up in adversity.

 

Initiatives set up by the Violence Reduction Unit (see Blog 1 for background) provide evidence of this. In 2005, Glasgow was named the murder capital of Europe, and the implementation of the VRU saw rates of crime reduce dramatically. The focus of the VRU was to treat the root causes of violence – which may range from poverty, substance misuse to unemployment. One of the most successful initiatives of the VRU is the Street & Arrow project, a social enterprise that employs young people with convictions for a 12-month period. Since its launch, the project has supported 150 trainees, 120 of whom have gone on to land jobs. This initiative responds to an underlying cause of violence (lack of employment opportunities) and in turn improves job skills and confidence. The opportunity for employment is likely to prevent trainees from re-offending and regain a sense of hope for their future.

 

If we want to reduce youth crime and anti-social behaviour, it is essential that we acknowledge the root causes and underlying issues. Evidently, cuts to youth services and limiting opportunities for young people has only exacerbated the difficult circumstances they already have faced. There is limited evidence to show that policing in schools can effectively reduce youth crime and anti-social behaviour, but it will have a damaging impact on pupils that have had negative experiences of policing, which is more likely to be young people of colour and those from working class backgrounds.

There isn’t a ‘quick fix’ solution to an issue as complex as youth violence, however it’s clear that harsh, punitive measures do not reduce violent crime. If we truly want to move towards a society free from violence, we must invest in young people by providing bespoke mental health services, trauma-informed interventions for those impacted by violence and building resilience among young people.

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