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Groups Find Police Presence in Schools Contributes to Sexual Violence

(OCTOBER 18, 2023) – Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, the National Women’s Law Center, the In Our Names Network, and Interrupting Criminalization hosted a national virtual event.

The event focused on assessing the impacts of police presence in schools on Black girls, trans, and gender-expansive youth. Tarana Burke of the Me Too Movement and Andrea J. Ritchie, author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color moderated the event.

Over the past three years, all six organizations have collected data and engaged young people in community conversations to understand how the presence of police in and around schools affects their sense of safety and well-being in three independent projects. Across the board, the conclusions were similar: police and private security and other law enforcement entities perpetuate violence in schools, including through sexualization, sexual harassment, and sexual assault of students.

In a new update to their #AssaultAt report, gathering incidents of police violence in schools, Advancement Project and Alliance for Educational Justice analyzed 372 police assaults of students from 2011-2023 and found that:

  • Over 85 percent of police assaults in or around schools since 2011 have been against Black students, where race is identified. During the 2022-23 school year, Black students made up 80% of the students assaulted, Latine students were nearly 7%, and Indigenous young people were 13%. 
  • In cases where gender was identified, girls made up over half of the victims of school police assaults in the 2022-23 school year (52.6%).
  • The third most frequent type of assault since 2011 – moving up from the fourth most frequent type of assault in a previously published report – is sexual assault. In the 2022-23 school year, sexual assaults account for 25% of all school police assaults against students.
  • School resource officers perpetrated nearly half of assaults against students, whereas security guards were the perpetrators in 21.6% of assaults, police at the school were involved in 15.7%, security officers in 7.8%, and multiple forms of police in 5.9%.

From the conversations with young Black women and girls and trans and gender nonconforming young people hosted by the National Women’s Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center and by the In Our Names Network in Columbia, South Carolina, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area, several common themes emerged:

  • School policing does not create safety in schools.
  • Police and security guards contribute to school environments in which Black girls and trans and gender nonconforming young people are sexualized, sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and gender-policed.
  • Black girls and trans and gender nonconforming young people do not feel comfortable reporting sexual harassment and assault by police, security guards, or other adults to authorities because they feel that:
    • They will be blamed or shamed for what happened;
    • They aren’t sure who to report it to;
    • They believe people with the power to take action won’t do anything to stop it;
    • There are no resources for survivors of sexual harassment or assault by police or security guards stationed in and around schools.
  • Black girls, trans, and gender nonconforming young people want to feel safe in schools, including from outsiders who would do them harm.

"When school police are wrongly assumed to make schools safer, it is apparent that the experiences of Black girls and other students who are often targeted by law enforcement have not been centered in the analysis. We have learned that the pervasive militarized police culture at our middle and high school campuses permeates the day-to-day experiences of Black girls, and those experiences are deeply traumatic and harmful. We call on policymakers, educators and administrators to listen to Black girls and create schools that move beyond security theater to actual safety," said Bacardi Jackson, Deputy Legal Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center

"We heard that cops do nothing to stop sexual violence in schools. We heard about police and private security in schools dress-coding, sexualizing, flirting with, harassing, following, and inappropriately touching and searching Black girls, trans and gender-expansive youth. We heard that girls and trans youth felt like it was pointless to tell anyone about it because nothing would change," said Shakeema Koonce, a researcher on the In Our Names Project.

"We need to take concrete action to ensure that they feel safe coming forward, whether it's comprehensive sex ed that names the problem, healing justice supports for survivors, and protection from continuing violence and retaliation," Tammaka Staley, a member of the In Our Names research team, added.

“These realities are not new - they are a significant part of what prompted me to found the ‘me too’ Movement,” Tarana Burke stated. “Starting with conversations with young Black women in the South and continuing with students in Philadelphia, I have consistently heard from young Black women that they are sexualized and experience sexual violence in schools, and that authority over reach from officials and those with authority like school ‘safety’ officers or police are part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

“Instead of increasing safety in schools, the presence of police and private security increases opportunities for sexualization, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, and gender policing, including in the context of routine searches conducted under the pretext of safety from weapons and drugs,” said Andrea J. Ritchie, author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color and co-founder of Interrupting Criminalization and the In Our Names Network.

“What is clear is that Black girls and trans and gender nonconforming young people want to feel safe at school. They want systems in place that can protect them from harm—but not at the expense of being policed themselves, especially in ways that sexualize them and make schools less safe and less welcoming for them,” said Sabrina Bernadel, Counsel of Education and Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center.

“Certain security guards might make certain girls feel uncomfortable. For example, if a bigger or thicker female student would walk by, other students and sometimes even the same student herself would talk about how they caught a security guard looking at them in an inappropriate way,” said Sedney Taylor, a student co-author working with NWLC and SPLC. “School safety involves the strategies and protocols aimed at safeguarding the physical and emotional well-being of students, staff, and visitors in educational settings, shielding them from threats, accidents, or harm. Those responsible for ensuring safety should never become the very threat they protect against in any manner.”

“This is not an individualized problem that can be cured by reporting and disciplining individual cops. It is a systemic issue that must be addressed by creating #PoliceFreeSchools, in which Black girls, trans, and gender expansive youth are engaged in co-creating environments free from violence of any kind. That includes comprehensive sex ed that promotes cultures of consent and creates opportunities for young people to safely come forward when they are experiencing harm, including sexual harassment and assault by police and private security,” said Ashley Sawyer, Senior Staff Attorney for Opportunity to Learn at Advancement Project.

For more information on the organizations’ findings, forthcoming reports, and calls to action, and on the pervasive problem of police sexual violence against young people in schools, youth engagement programs, and communities, please visit http://policefreeschools.org/policesexualviolence.