This toolkit is designed for youth, parents and caregivers, educators, and other community members across New York State who want schools without police and are wondering how to make that happen. The NYCLU’s goal in creating this toolkit is to provide you with resources to begin the conversation around the impact of police presence in your school, and eventually shift towards a school culture that is safe, supportive, and does not require police. If you want a school that treats students as community members and not criminals, then this toolkit is a great place to start.
Below you will find background information, organizing tips, and sample documents that you can use to create a plan that makes sense for your community. We understand that every community has different needs and is in a different stage in this process. You can use some or all of what’s in the guide and, of course, add your own ideas to your plan, to create a path that makes the most sense for your community. If you need help, you can always contact us at email@example.com.
PART 1: THE PROBLEM OF POLICE IN SCHOOLS
Students across New York as young as four years old come into regular contact with police as part of their school day. By high school, most students attend schools with police officers permanently assigned to patrol them, and schools with more students of color and students from low-income households have the most police.
The presence of police in schools creates an environment of control and punishment, disproportionately targeting Black and Brown students. Behavior typical of adolescents is often treated with adult-like punishment, which is increasingly being referred to as “adultification.” Adultification is a form of dehumanization, robbing Black children of the very essence of what makes childhood distinct from all other developmental periods: innocence. Adultification contributes to a false narrative that Black youths’ transgressions are intentional and malicious, instead of the result of immature decision making – a key characteristic of childhood.
As a result, in New York City, for example, Black students make up 26 percent of school enrollment but experience 59 percent of arrests. White students are vastly underrepresented in every type of interaction with school police.
Beginning hundreds of years ago with the maintenance of chattel slavery, through the Jim Crow Era and up until today, law enforcement is given money and power to exert control over Black and Brown people and uphold white supremacy and privilege. Today, this takes the form of law enforcement targeting and more harshly punishing people who experience discrimination and marginalization – such as people of color, people with disabilities, immigrants, and people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/questioning (LGBTQ).
The 2020 police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Daniel Prude, and countless others elevated longstanding demands for racial justice and sparked calls to defund the police. These calls include demands to divest from law enforcement responses to community health and safety and invest in support services that solve problems. One example is to spend less on police in schools and use that money to pay for teachers, school nurses, guidance counselors, and social workers, extracurricular activities, and school building improvements like air conditioning.
Types of Law Enforcement in Schools in New York
When used casually, the term “police” can refer to several different types of law enforcement who may be present in your school. Your school may employ or contract with local sworn police officers, School Resource Officers (SROs), School Safety Officers (SSOs), retired municipal police, representatives from the county sheriff’s department, state police, or private independent security firms.
Law enforcement officials of all types are trained to look for criminal behavior and to gain control of a situation. But no matter what amount of training they receive, they often harm, handcuff, arrest, interrogate, detain, or restrict the liberty of students. Most will have limited experience working with youth in a professional capacity, and almost none of them will be social workers, counselors, or trained mental health professionals. And those professionals are who students need.
There are some slight differences in the types of police that work in schools. SROs are sworn law enforcement officers who may have completed different training than police officers who don’t work in schools. For example, in New York City, school safety officers attend a shorter and less demanding training than other police. Regardless, SROs have the full powers of police officers and are often armed. These officers are assigned to work at a school or group of schools under an agreement approved by the school board. They are government employees.
Security guards, by contrast, are not active police officers and rarely carry weapons. They probably work for a private company and wear a uniform that is similar but not identical to a police uniform. Although some security guards are former law enforcement, they don’t have the ability to arrest or to use deadly force in most circumstances. Most schools have trended away from security guards and toward armed police officers.
Often, students don’t even realize that the person who checks their ID at the door, or who patrols the hallways and lunchroom, is a police officer. School districts may use different titles like School Resource Officer to try to confuse the issue. So, you may need to ask questions to find out the truth.
Massive police presence in schools comes with astronomical costs. In 2021, the New York Police Department (NYPD) was allocated $451.9 million for its School Safety Division alone. This is money that could be better spent on any number of educational needs, opportunities for students, or health and mental health supports.
The cost of policing goes beyond money. For many students, the history of police use of deadly force against unarmed Black people, coupled with the presence of police in schools creates trauma in an environment that should be safe and nurturing. When kids are subject to use of force, arrest, and the full weight of the criminal legal system for breaking school rules, their experience at school is not safe.
Harsh school discipline policies disproportionately impact students of color, students with disabilities, immigrant students, and LGBTQ students. Finally, police in schools present a particular danger to immigrant students when law enforcement on campus share information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Many districts have policies or practices in place that direct or allow educators to share student information with police. Some school districts, for example, agree to share information about students who are suspected of being involved in “gang activity.” Trivial behavior like wearing a certain color of clothing or type of shoe can be labeled as gang activity and trigger police involvement. Schools may also share information about students’ and families’ immigration status with police or ICE. This information sharing can have devastating consequences for students and their families. Again, this does not make school safer for these kids.
A History of Oppression and Control in Schools
Many believe the increased presence of police in schools is a response to recent incidents of gun violence in schools. That is not the case. Historically, law enforcement has been used to police students of color in integrated schools and to maintain racial inequality. The presence of police in schools can be traced back to 1948 when the Los Angeles Police Department created a unit in the school to protect school property after integration.
In 1957, the National Guard tried to block the “Little Rock Nine” from integrating the school. Then in 1967 when more than 3,000 Philadelphia students walked out of school to protest the lack of representation in history courses, they were met by over 100 police officers in riot gear.
The 1970s and 80s saw broad backlash to the Civil Rights Movements through laws and policies targeting Black and Brown people. The War on Drugs and zero-tolerance discipline policies contributed to the criminalization of Black and Brown youth, creating what is known as the School-to-Prison and School-to-Deportation Pipelines.
The increased investment in school policing in the 1990s through Community Oriented Policing (COPS) programs expanded the size and power of police in schools, which increased the harmful consequences to students. Then in the late 1990s, the school shooting in Columbine prompted even more federal funding for police in schools, resulting in over 6,500 police in schools. By 2009, this number grew to an estimated 17,000 and it’s only continued to increase since then. In 2018 an Urban Institute found that nearly 70 percent of high school students and nearly 50 percent of middle school students attend a school with a police officer. These numbers are likely an undercount because getting reliable data on police presence in schools is challenging.
We must create truly safe schools. We need to provide physical, psychological, and emotional safety for all students.
Advocates have long called for education funds to be reallocated from police to hire guidance counselors, social workers, nurses, and psychologists. These school-based health and mental health providers are frequently the first to see children who are not feeling well, are stressed or traumatized, are experiencing abuse, acting out, have an undiagnosed disability, or are at risk of hurting themselves or others. These services are especially important in low-income districts where access is scarce.
A 2019 report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that schools that employ more school-based mental health providers see improved attendance rates, lower rates of suspension, expulsion and other disciplinary incidents, improved academic achievement and career preparation, and improved graduation rates. Data from the report also shows that school staff who provide health and mental health services to our children not only improve the health outcomes for those students, but also improve school safety. In contrast, the report found no evidence that police in schools improve school safety.
True safety in schools comes when students are supported, not policed. Fortunately, school districts across the country are taking steps to remove police from their schools, including Minneapolis, Minnesota, Oakland, California, and Rochester, New York.
In June 2020, the Rochester City Council voted to remove school resource officers (SROs) from the Rochester City School District as part of a city budget that also reduced the overall funding to the police department and increased money for youth services. This decision responded to the growing demand to dedicate more resources to student services in Rochester schools.
It’s time for the rest of the state to follow in Rochester’s footsteps. We must reduce police presence in schools across the state, working towards safe schools that are police-free and provide the support students need.
PART 2: TOOLKIT
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” - Frederick Douglass
If you want to remove law enforcement from your school, chances are you will need to demand it. You will need to find people who will demand it with you and create a plan for how to achieve your demands. You will need an organizing plan. Learn more about organizing.
Organizing plans – also called campaign plans – are created by answering a set of questions to figure out what you want and how to get it.
We’ve broken down these questions into steps to guide your planning:
STEP 1: IDENTIFY THE ISSUE
What's Happening in Your District?
How to Find Out if There Are Police in Public Schools in Your Community
There are a few ways to confirm whether there are law enforcement officers in your school.
First, find your school district’s MOU. Every district in New York with any law enforcement in any of its schools is required to have an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) which is a public contract between the school and law enforcement. New York Education Law § 2801-a(10) requires this MOU to delegate school discipline matters only to school administration, not law enforcement. A well-crafted MOU can greatly limit the role of police in schools if removing them outright is not an option yet. Check out the NYCLU’s Recommendations for an MOU for an idea of what an MOU should include. Finding your school district’s MOU is a good place to start if you are trying to gather information for your campaign.
The best place to find your school MOU is by going to your school district’s website. Every school district in New York has a website and all districts are required by law to post the MOU on their website. Usually, the MOU is included in the district’s “School Safety Plan,” and can usually be found in the District or Board of Education “Policies” section of the district website.
Second, contact your local Board of Education and/or submit a FOIL request. If you cannot find the MOU of School Safety Plan on your district website, you can retrieve it by contacting your local Board of Education or by submitting a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. We recommend that in your FOIL request you ask for both a description of the law enforcement presence in your school and for the MOU describing the roles and responsibilities of school personnel, security personnel, and law enforcement. The local office of the NYCLU can help you with this, and we've created a sample FOIL template which explains what you need to ask for and when you should expect a reply from your school.
If you know your school district has law enforcement, but does not have an MOU, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This would mean they are violating the law.
Third, check data. It may be helpful to use data to learn what local law enforcement may be active in the community where your school district is located. The NYCLU has created a map of all counties in New York State that shows which law enforcement is active in each school district within the county. This map shows how many times schools have called law enforcement to the school (what’s called a law enforcement referral), how many arrests were made at a particular school, and the number of police in schools if the district reports that data. This map is based on federal data that is a few years old and may not capture the entire scope of how many police there are in schools in your district, in part because sometimes districts don’t fully report this information, but this map may still be a useful resource in familiarizing yourself with the presence of police in schools in your community.
If it’s not still clear whether there are school police in your area, you can check data about any school using the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights website. This is where you can go to search for your school district, and this is where you can search for your specific school. This website is run by the federal government and collects a wide range of data on public schools, including arrests in school. But school districts don’t always report accurately, so take this information as a starting point.
Don’t Go it Alone
Many schools have student representation on the school board. This presents an important opportunity to engage students. The contact information for the student representative should be on the Board of Education website. But it is probably more valuable to reach out to students and student groups on your own. Be sure to include a wide range of groups because we know that different students experience the police differently. For example, some students may see law enforcement as a career goal and therefore view the police as role models. Other students, especially Black and Brown students, may see law enforcement as a dangerous and threatening force who can harm them.
You may find that students have surprisingly close relationships with school police. This is not a sign that individual officers are “good” or “bad,” but is usually evidence of a structural problem. For example, the school probably lacks adequately trained professionals, particularly people of color, who kids can identify with and trust. School police may be among the youngest adults in a school building, often merely high school graduates themselves. Sometimes these relationships reflect police overstepping professional boundaries.
While it is vital for young people to have adults in school that they trust, these “positive” relationships can be dangerous for kids, because anything they share with a police officer can be used against them or their families in a legal proceeding. Police are under no obligation to maintain privacy or confidentiality as educators and mental health professionals are. They have no specialized training to help young person through self-esteem issues, bullying or harassment, anxiety, depression, abusive relationships, immigration issues, substance use, gender or sexuality questions, or self-harm. The only tool they are trained to use is the criminal legal system, which can and does cause lifelong harm.
During your advocacy, find a way to raise the voice of students, especially those who are from communities that are heavily policed and have experienced harm at the hands of law enforcement. Find out what kids really need, and if they that need is being filled by the wrong type of professional. Students can speak at Board of Education meetings, they can write letters to the school newspaper or the local paper, they can attend meetings with school board members and superintendents. But most importantly, they should drive the conversation from their personal experience.
Your advocacy will also be more impactful if you are part of a coalition. Coalitions expand and increase the power of individuals by speaking with one voice. Members of the community can contribute in many different capacities. Some people may come and just listen, others may become deeply involved, but no matter what level of involvement, the power to create change lies with the people.
STEP 2: CREATE A VISION
Imagine what schools will look and feel like without a police officer at the front door. Who will greet students, manage the flow of outside visitors, and make sure unauthorized people aren’t coming into the school? Could that person be a teacher, coach, community leader, or rotating groups of student leaders? Would a professional door person be a good fit? Is there police infrastructure at the front door like a metal detector or surveillance camera? What would the school look and feel like if that equipment could safely be removed?
Additionally, start to envision what a positive school climate looks and feels like. During this part of the process, don’t be constrained by what you have heard before or by current circumstances—the goal is to envision a school that meets every student’s needs. What does that look and feel like? Are there different adults in the building? Is it a different building altogether? When we tap into the funding that has been invested in police, there are new possibilities for schools.
If there are no police in schools, how do you create safety? Does the school have a peer mediation or restorative practices program (restorative practices are a method of conflict resolution where students come to understand why their behavior is harmful and how to resolve disputes productively)? If we remove police, are we likely to see teachers suspending a lot more students? How will young people get help with hard problems, including substance use, sexual health, abusive relationships, and issues at home? Unfortunately, many schools have relied on police for so long to fill these roles that there are no obvious answers to these questions. But by redirecting resources from policing to supporting kids, schools can hire the right professionals to help.
STEP 3: SET GOALS
What Change are You Demanding?
Be very clear and specific about what you want to see. For example, you could say, “we don’t want police in our schools and instead we want two additional social workers, the creation of a peer mediation program and a team of people trained in restorative justice.”
If your district is a long way away from embracing police-free schools, can you start by reducing the number of police in schools? Fewer police in the building means fewer opportunities for bad interactions with kids. It means police are less likely to get involved in non-emergency situations and educators will manage student behavior instead of calling the cops. It frees up some money for extracurriculars, building improvements, or teaching and learning. Can you cut school police by half? Or even eliminate one officer position? Can you achieve police-free elementary and middle schools, even if your high school has a long way to go?
It’s helpful to remind people that budgets are not just accounting. They are policy documents that reflect your community’s priorities. You could demand that, instead of bolstering police budgets, funds must be dedicated to meet the basic needs of the school community. For example, the National Association of School Social Workers recommends that the ratio of students to social workers be no more than 250:1. If your school district has one social worker for every 1,000 students – which is not uncommon – you can point to these staffing standards to urge changes to the budget. Or you could demand the creation of a case worker position. This person would help ensure students and families have access to community services. State law requires that every school have a Dignity for All Students coordinator to address bullying and harassment issues. Does your school have one?
In any case, it is imperative to have a clear demand to rally behind. Being “for” something is stronger than only being against something. Consult with your community and coalition to come to a consensus on what that demand is.
STEP 4: IDENTIFY TARGETS
Who has the Power to Make the Change You Seek?
Do this power-mapping exercise to identify the people with power who you can target.
Potential Target for Change: School Boards
In New York State, school boards, also known as Boards of Education, are the entity that ensures students receive a sound basic education which meets the standards set by the State Constitution. The vast majority of school boards do not represent the experience of Black and Brown students and parents. In general, they have three main roles: hire and evaluate the superintendent, propose a budget for the voters to approve, and make policy. In most cases, it is the last two functions that will impact your advocacy to remove police from schools.
It is also important to remember that school board members are elected, and they are supposed to be responsive to the changing needs of students and to the local community. To ensure that they are listening to community members, most school boards have an opportunity for the public to comment before their meetings. This will provide an opportunity for you and other community members to express your concerns about police in schools and to share the disparate impact on Black and Brown students.
While sharing your own experiences in your own words is often the most powerful tool, the NYCLU is happy to provide guidance as you prepare public comments. Throughout this toolkit you will find information and messaging that can also inform your comments. You can also review this FAQ for ideas.
School board elections are held annually in May. As that time approaches, get engaged in your local races and try to influence candidates to take a position supporting police-free schools. School board elections usually see very low voter turnout, so a little organizing can go a long way.
Two key personnel work closely with school boards: the superintendent and the principal. It is the role of superintendents to implement the vision, policy, and plans of the school board. Therefore, the target of your advocacy will be the school board. But it is also important to make your demands known to the superintendent since they translate policy into action. Similarly, the principal will have to enact the policy of the school board.
If you have a supportive principal, it may be useful to engage them as an ally.
STEP 5: TOOLS TO HELP YOU TAKE ACTION
Now that you know a bit about organizing and your target, what do you do?
First, identify who is on your local school board. This information is usually on the school district website. Then, identify who could be an ally and who could be an opponent.
Next, consider who can help support or shift people’s positions.
Once you know your targets, you can start reaching out to school board members and organizing community members to speak up.
We have a few tools available for you to use. You can use these as is or edit with your own voice:
- Sample email to school board members
- Sample petition for removal of police from school
- Sample budget advocacy one-pager explaining the issue
- Sample resolution to formally remove police from schools
- FOIL request template
What Message Will Move Your Targets to Meet Your Demands?
Come up with a slogan that summarizes your vision and demand in a concise and direct manner. Having a slogan will connect people to your movement in a way that is easy to digest and understand. The NYCLU has used the slogans “counselors not cops” and “education not incarceration” in our campaigns and will be able to provide you with some materials to support your campaign. Send us an email at email@example.com.
STEP 6: CREATE YOUR ACTION PLAN
Campaign planning allows you to determine the best ways to use your resources. Planning a campaign is as much about what you will do as what you won’t do. It is about strategically focusing finite resources (e.g., volunteers) to achieve the most progress toward your goals. The written plan helps you determine whether a particular action, tactic, or event is aimed at your target decision-makers. It also gives your team something to follow and helps keep everyone in your group on the same page every step of the way.
STEP 7: COMBINE YOUR EFFORTS TO CREATE MORE CHANGE
Revisit your vision. What can you do next to continue moving the reality closer to your vision?
Even if your campaign to remove police from schools is successful, your work is still not done. Beyond creating police-free schools, we want true safety and support for students. So, we must demand that the money that was dedicated to maintaining a police presence be used to pay for counselors, mental health professionals, and restorative justice programming.
Students are experiencing record levels of anxiety and depression. Many students will have witnessed or experienced trauma or grief before they graduate. School professionals are often the first to see the impact of these experiences, but most districts don’t have enough counselors, social workers, or mental health professionals to meet the needs of their students. We can and must do better.
Start asking some questions:
- Are there enough guidance counselors, school psychologists, social workers, and nurses in your school? Are they actually trained to meet students’ needs?
- How do students make appointments? Is there an open-door policy? Even if there is, is the room always full? What is the student to counselor ratio?
- What kind of programming is available during and after school? Is there a restorative justice program?
- Do adults in the building reflect the demographic makeup of the school community and languages spoken by students?
Don’t fall for false reforms. If the proposal to remove the police is successful, will they be replaced by something else? What are they being replaced with? Are these people armed? Do they have arrest power? Will they be required to publicly report data on their activities? If a new entity is going to replace the police, will there be community input? And if police are removed, you may see an increase in suspensions or expulsions of students by educators—that would not be a win.
By now you have built a powerful coalition with the skills to continue to create positive changes in your school and community. Use that coalition to monitor progress and to advocate for further investment in students.