To say that 2020 has been a year that has taken the world by storm would undoubtedly be an understatement. With the outbreak of a global pandemic, the loss of several role models—politicians, athletes and actors alike, the devastating explosion in Beirut and natural disasters such as the wildfires in Australia—this year has been one fraught with tragedy and uncertainty.
This year has also seen an increase in social unrest after the brutal deaths of several Black men and women at the hands of the police. The names George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor are amongst several of those whose stories have ignited a hunger for systemic change. These horrifying acts of violence have led to the globalization of the Black Lives Matter Movement, which has colored much of our 2020 thus far.
Serving as a wake up call for much of our youth, this movement has seeped its way into nearly every crack, leading to students pushing for reform in their own schools. At Whitney M. Young Magnet High School, we are re-evaluating our relationship with police and focusing on ensuring that all students feel safe. The removal of School Resource Officers (SROs) from the building has become a pressing topic at our school and several others across the city of Chicago.
The introduction of SROs in schools began with the intention of strengthening the relationship between local youth and law enforcement. However, the presence of SROs in schools only looms over the vast majority of BIPOC, inducing anxiety and helplessness rather than a sense of security. Having officers in schools serves as a reminder of the over-policing within minority neighborhoods as well as the criminalization faced by these students on a daily basis.
In August, several students and alumni from my school held a rally amidst the current pandemic, signaling their dedication to fighting for the safety of all students. Many were forced to relive past traumatic encounters with officers in the building in order to be heard by other members of our community. One student was brave enough to describe the immense fear that prevented them from approaching the officers in the building and how they were so nervous their hands were shaking uncontrollably. Their stories only reiterated the unfortunate truth: though officers are allegedly placed in schools to protect the student body, the reality is that their presence only results in harassment of BIPOC students, the use of excessive force and paranoia.
Though I am fortunate to never have interacted with our SROs in a negative way, the pressure to act as “well-behaved” as possible weighs on my chest daily. As a Black female, I fear the target that is involuntarily placed on my back. Having officers in the building doesn't make me feel safe. Seeing them inspires pessimism and fear. I wonder, “Am I next?” I fear that I am doing something wrong, even though I know I haven’t. When I turn on the news and see the stories of fellow Black people such as Breonna Taylor, who was murdered in her own home, I realize that in this country, simply being Black is seen as enough to warrant such brutal treatment.
Chicago Public Schools currently grants $33 million dollars for funding SROs, whereas only $8.5 million goes towards mental health resources. Instead of relying on police to address issues, many students—myself included—believe that SROs should be removed from schools and more money should be used to fund counselors in order to first address the underlying issues. We cannot solve mental health issues by simply throwing police officers at them. In order to best support our students, we should prioritize not only their physical safety, but their mental health as well.
Although many are rallying in favor of the students who feel threatened and unsafe, an obstacle bars them from making progress: the administration. Ineffective communication with administration has led to increased frustration within our community. Despite the efforts of many, change cannot be made until those who have the power to make it happen are willing to listen and provide answers in full. Our school has held a few town halls relating to the issue, however, when discussing this with my peers, many felt as though their opinions were invalidated. Other students highlighted the lack of adequate responses from administration to their emails.
In a world that has seemingly gone to chaos, we cannot expect to create big change without starting small. Within our own communities, we must work to acknowledge one another’s voices and be receptive of everyone’s stories. We must recognize the importance of schools as the first civic institution many of us encounter and view it as a reflection of our society. School should be a place where students are to be able to express themselves and be heard.