Like most, when I heard last week about the east London teenager who was strip-searched by police at her school, I was horrified. The terrible details of this state-sanctioned abuse of a young girl are horrific enough, but when I learned that it was her teachers from her who had called the police – who stood outside the room while police officers searched the private parts of a child – I was speechless.
As a teacher, the thought that this could happen somewhere children should be safe is unthinkable. But the truth is, it is time we were honest about the increasing encroachment of policing in our schools. This incident did not occur in a vacuum. Teachers, once seen as educators and caregivers, are under pressure to become plain-clothes police officers teaching algebra.
In recent years, there has been a growing trend for military-style behavior management in schools. routine bag searches, detentions for slouching in class and pupils being sent into isolation for not bringing in their lunch money; police officers patrolling school corridors and Victorian-style hierarchies that deny students their rights and assign authoritarian control to teachers.
Proponents of this style of behavior management herald it as refreshingly strict: reminiscent of a bygone era in which schools were places of respect and order. But it’s no coincidence that these attitudes to discipline are disproportionately found in schools that serve poor communities with a higher proportion of minority ethnic pupils, enacted in the name of “revolutionising” inner-city comprehensives with bad reputations. Supporters may claim that these rules are no different to those in the best private schools, but rich white children’s privileges are not eroded in this way because their humanity is never questioned. How many affluent neighborhoods have police officers wearing stab vests stationed inside their school?
When I became a teacher I did not sign up to police working-class, black and brown children who are already harassed, systemically disadvantaged and criminalized by the state and by a police force that has come itself to be rife with discrimination and xenophobia. If we use these draconian methods on children who already face a system rigged against them, what are we doing but preparing them for a life of coercion and control at the hands of the state? We create a self-fulfilling prophecy that says we expect violence and disorder from a certain kind of child. We become complicit in training pupils to accept this treatment from authorities, and we tell parents who are already navigating multiple layers of disadvantage that the dehumanization of their children is necessary for academic success and social mobility. The proven link between exclusion and prison reflects the tightly woven relationship between schooling and policing.
British Muslims can testify to the devastation wreaked by tasking public-sector workers such as teachers and GPs with the job of policing. The Prevent strategy has caused years of immeasurable damage to Muslim communities. Alarmingly, Prevent is part of mandatory safeguarding in schools. It “protects” Muslim children by referring them to counter-terror police when teachers misinterpret “alms to the oppressed” as “arms to the oppressed”. It “safeguards” Muslim children by allowing them to be questioned by anti-terror police without an adult present. It subjects Muslim teachers to the impossibly conflicted position of enacting state-sanctioned Islamophobia against our own communities.
When I first underwent mandatory Prevent training, I was shocked by how much the so-called signs of radicalization sounded a lot like my 15-year-old self. Starting to wear the hijab, taking an interest in Arab politics, becoming withdrawn. If I was a teenager now, I may well have been referred to the anti-radicalisation program for expressing nothing other than teenage angst and a pubescent identity crisis. Muslim students are policed for normal teenage behaviors and denied the right to explore their developing ideas about the world without fear of criminalisation.
Schools should be places of open dialogue and debate where students are allowed to grapple with complex and controversial ideas in a safe environment. But black and brown students are not afforded this luxury – instead they are policed. The case of Child Q is a stark reminder that the creep of policing into schools does not protect students – it does the opposite. Poor black and brown children are not safe on the street, and neither are they safe in schools as long as teachers are increasingly obliged to become police officers in all but name. We cannot let our profession become an additional arm of a broken police service.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism