Some Texas Students Want An End To School Policing. Here's Why.
When Marsha Madrigal was in middle school, she thought it was normal to see her classmates in handcuffs.
But she knows now that not all schools have a significant police presence, and the odds of seeing your classmates arrested go up if you are Black, like she is.
The 2018 Fox Tech High School graduate wants the San Antonio Independent School District to remove police from its schools so future middle-schoolers never think it’s normal to see classmates in handcuffs.
As calls for defunding of police departments ring across the country, social-justice advocates say it should happen in schools, too. But in Dallas, the superintendent and some trustees say they don't want it to happen.
These requests echoed letters advocacy groups sent to urban districts across Texas — including Houston, San Antonio and Austin.
Students of color, students with disabilities and LGBTQ+ students are also overrepresented in school discipline and arrests nationwide. They are more directly impacted by police in schools than any other group involved in the growing debate about school-based officers.
So far, none of the Texas districts have heeded those calls. But after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, school systems in several U.S. cities, including Minneapolis, have voted to remove police from their schools. Other school systems, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, have voted to reduce funding for school police.
Marsha Madrigal, 20, Fox Tech Class of 2018 Salutatorian
When Marsha Madrigal was in 8th grade, she was given two weeks of in-school suspension after her Spanish teacher noticed that the tips of her hair were dyed dark purple.
“I wasn't allowed to be in their classroom because my hair wasn't the standard,” said Madrigal, whose father is Black and mother is Mexican American. “But you had either a fair-skinned Latina woman or a white girl who attended the same middle school as me and had her whole hair dyed bright pink, and she was never subjected to the same harsh disciplinary measures as I was.”
During her two weeks of in-school suspension at Longfellow Middle School, she was joined by two other Black girls. Madrigal said there were only four Black girls in her entire school.
“There are only four of us, but 75% of us are in suspension, where we're not allowed to collect the work that we need to stay on track (but are instead given busy work).”
Madrigal said those two weeks during in-school suspension showed her how easy it would have been to get caught in a cycle of punishments — until she landed in the criminal justice system or dropped out of school.
She was unable to attend class for two weeks, and was given simple busy work instead of assignments from her teachers, putting her behind in class. She was tempted to stay home, since she wasn’t learning anything. But if she did, she would have been punished with more time in in-school suspension. Meanwhile, no one asked her why she was upset about her punishment, or checked in with her to see if anything was going on at home.
“And guess what, the home environment is one of the reasons why I might have reacted maybe not the best way in the first place that might have got me into (in-school suspension). But that was never addressed, and so the cycle continues,” Madrigal said. “I've witnessed very bright, very smart people get arrested at school, get pushed out, go to Estrada (Alternative Center) and then just never come back.”
According to Paula Johnson with the Intercultural Development Research Association, Black girls often bear the brunt of vague discipline infractions like showing disrespect or having an attitude.
“The policies that are in place are so ambiguous and broad that it allows for something as simple as a heavy sigh being taken as what would be called intentional disrespect of an adult. And that student can be suspended for that,” said Johnson.
As director of IDRA’s Equity Assistance Center, Johnson conducts equity audits of school districts in 11 southern states, including Texas.
Her organization is one of the advocacy groups behind the letter sent to SAISD asking the district to divest from school policing.
“Black students do not actually misbehave on a higher level than their peers, but they are usually referred to either the office or the school police for the same reasons that another student maybe gets a warning. And so that's where that bias comes in that is criminalizing the behavior of Black students,” Johnson said.
As one of a handful of Black students at Longfellow and Fox Tech High School, Madrigal said she felt like she couldn’t fully be herself without facing consequences.
“I can't feel the way I want to feel, I can't express my emotions the way I want to express my emotions, because I feel like if I mess up, it’s going to reflect really poorly on me,” Madrigal said.
She believes that police presence in schools make situations worse, not better, and that the district’s money is better spent on social workers and mental health experts that can help students experiencing hardship and trauma.
“The district knows that we're going through all this stuff,” Madrigal said. “They want to give us police? Why not give us the people we need to work through our emotions? Why not hire some board-certified therapists that specialize in domestic violence, that specialize in immigration?”
Alejo Peña Soto, 17, rising senior at Jefferson High School
Current San Antonio ISD student advocates say not much has changed since Madrigal graduated, despite the adoption of a new discipline policy and student handbook at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year.
At the urging of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and other advocacy groups, trustees revised the policy to explicitly state that police should not be involved in routine discipline. The policy also encourages administrators to adopt restorative practices that address the root causes of behavior in order to reduce suspensions.
Alejo Peña Soto said he hasn’t seen a push for change at his school. He believes his school leaders are more comfortable with involving police because several administrators have a military background.
“One of my first days at Jeff, a boy was put in handcuffs because he ordered a pizza. Which, you know, when you see stuff like that, it's hard to see the benefits of having them on our campus,” Peña Soto said.
As a member of the SAISD Student Coalition, he has been advocating for changes to the district’s discipline policies for months.
“Some of the first meetings we had, we'd spend half the meeting talking about how there isn't enough mental health support at schools, and how we felt district wide there wasn't enough support for students,” Peña Soto said.
“But then there was also this overfunding of police when it wasn't necessary at all. It was a way to control students and control them in a way that wasn't appropriate at all.”
After the death of George Floyd inspired Black Lives Matter protests across the country, sparking conversations about the role of police in schools, Peña Soto said the student coalition decided it was time to push for an end to school police entirely.
“I understand that schools in this country historically have (had police in schools) for a long time. But that doesn't mean it’s okay. And I think that now, more than ever, is the perfect time to push away from systems like that,” Peña Soto said.
“I think the district is quick to dismiss what we propose because we're students sometimes,” Peña Soto added. “They feel like we don't understand what's going on, but we do. We have the ability to research, we understand what's going on, and we've seen the research that suggests that policing is not necessary.”
Ariel Alvarez, 20, Burbank High School 2018 graduate
Ariel Alvarez said drug searches were common practice at her school too, and according to her younger sister, who is a rising senior at Burbank, not much has changed since she graduated.
“Usually when people do a search, they have to have a warrant, but when it's in a classroom, they don't have to have anything,” Alvarez said. “They get to just storm in there and just see what's in kids’ backpacks and take their snacks or their drinks.”
Burbank teacher Luke Amphlett said he finds the use of dogs especially troubling, because of the history of white Americans using dogs to perpetuate racial violence as far back as slave catchers.
“I've seen a lot of students pulled out of a lot of classrooms and made to stand in the hallway, treated as suspects in crimes that there's no evidence have even happened,” said Amphlett, a member of the teacher union social justice caucus who has helped the students advocate for themselves.
Alvarez and other students said police are also called whenever conflicts arise among other students or with teachers. They feel like the officers escalate situations and put students at risk.
“It made me feel really scared for the students, because there's grown men who are like built — built like grown men — just throwing kids around and off of each other,” Alvarez said.
“It's really scary, because they have the weapons on them on campus, so you don't know what's gonna happen. I lived in a time after Trayvon Martin, I lived in a time after so many other instances of police brutality, and I just didn't want things to escalate.”
Alvarez said she saw three or four fights during her four years at Burbank, and even those conflicts could have been resolved by bringing in a counselor instead of a police officer.
She worries that arrests may have had outsized consequences for her classmates.
“Someone has to get that kid out. And God forbid, his parents are undocumented, or God forbid, he isn't documented,” Alvarez said. “That just creates a whole ripple effect of problems for these students.”
She remembers seeing a classmate who didn’t speak English get arrested, and then not seeing him again for at least a year.
Where to go from here
Research shows that adults see children of color, especially Black boys, as older than they actually are.
Johnson, with IDRA, believes school administrators should handle fights themselves instead of calling a police officer. State law does not require districts to report fights to law enforcement unless there is a weapon or there is a serious injury.
“If a student resource officer or a police officer were to get involved and cite them, that is now on a record,” Johnson said. “They're missing school, they're missing instruction, their grades may go down…That's how we end up with students dropping out of school.”
She believes that the problem with police in schools is that part of their job becomes policing students instead of protecting them from outside dangers.
While students and other advocates would like to see a complete divestment from police, they said they’d be happy if, in the meantime, the district fully implemented the changes necessary to live up to the promise of the handbook it adopted last year.
“We want to see something that's real and legitimate, and we want the district to be transparent when it's making these decisions,” Peña Soto said.
Burbank teacher Luke Amphlett said an initiative for students at-risk of dropping out run by the Martinez Street Women’s Center incorporates restorative practices. Overall, however, he said his school has become more punitive over the last few years, not less.
“For the overwhelming majority of our students, that is the reality. And when we talk about supporting restorative practices, what we have to talk about is restorative practices everywhere for every student. And anytime that we're not doing that we're failing,” Amphlett said.
Radle acknowledged that campuses still involve police in discipline sometimes, and that the switch to restorative practices instead of punitive discipline was a work in progress.
“There's still a lot of work to be done, but as you begin to do this work, there is a lot of planning and there is a lot of training. There's a lot of having to change (teachers’ and officers’ minds). It’s a lot of work building culture,” Radle said. “No matter what rules you have in place, there are people that are going to break them, there are going to be people that ignore them.”
“We know we have a lot of work to do. We just want people to notice that we've been working on it. You know, we're not starting from zero here,” she added.
Especially after school shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe, both advocates and trustees noted that there are a lot of people who want police in San Antonio schools. But because research hasn’t shown that school-based officers keep schools safer, and has shown negative effects for marginalized students, including lower graduation rates, advocates believe they shouldn’t be in schools.
“I'm a huge believer in democracy, but I also think we have to make sure that we push back on the idea that things that are wrong are acceptable if lots of people think them,” Amphlett said, pointing out that a large portion of the American population opposed desegregating schools during the 1950s and '60s.
“People's thinking shifts and people's thinking shifts by having serious conversations about things. And there's never been a serious conversation about this.”