Building the Foundation for Police-Free Schools

By Mark R. Warren

Illustrator: Howard Barry

The police-free schools movement exploded onto the scene in 2020, in the wake of mass protests against racism and police violence. Most people had never heard about demands to defund or remove police from schools, but community groups in low-income communities of color had been laying the foundations for this movement for many years, led often by young people facing police abuse in schools.

On Oct. 25, 2015, student Niya Kenny filmed a white school police officer body slamming her classmate, a Black 16-year-old girl named Shakara, to the floor during math class at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. Deputy Sheriff Ben Fields placed Shakara in a headlock, flipped her desk over, and then dragged and threw her across the floor, all for allegedly refusing to hand over her cell phone. Yet it was Kenny and Shakara (we are withholding her last name for privacy reasons) who were arrested, charged with “disturbing school,” and sent to juvenile detention. Another student who recorded the assault, Tony Robinson Jr., described the impact on students to WLTX-TV:

I’ve never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick to the point that you know, other students are turning away, don’t know what to do, and are just scared for their lives. That’s supposed to be somebody that’s going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scared of, or afraid.

The video went viral online, aired repeatedly on television stations including major news networks, and led to a national outcry about the way police abuse Black children in schools. For young people and youth organizers with the Alliance for Educational Justice (AEJ), the incident demonstrated what they long knew: Police do not make schools safer. Rather, police are a key part of the system that criminalizes students of color and should be removed from schools.

AEJ, a national alliance of more than two dozen youth organizing groups working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, dubbed the incident #AssaultAtSpringValley on social media and swung into action. Youth members of AEJ, led by the Urban Youth Collaborative (UYC) in New York City, started writing love letters to Kenny and Shakara to show their support. When released from detention, Kenny attended a Youth Power conference sponsored by the Funders’ Collaborative on Youth Organizing in Durham, North Carolina, where students from UYC as well as the Philadelphia Student Union and Power U Center for Social Change in Miami called her on stage and read the love letters to her. According to Onyx Walker from UYC, “Standing on that stage, hand in hand with youth from across the country, telling Niya we had her back, was a powerful experience for me. We were connected now.”

AEJ also worked with Color of Change and local organizing groups to collect 150,000 signatures on a petition to have the criminal charges of “disturbing school” against Kenny and Shakara dropped. Along with the Malcolm X Center for Social Change, they delivered the petition to the Fifth Judicial Circuit solicitor Dan Johnson. In January 2016, Kenny and a group of youth leaders from New Orleans testified at a hearing of the United Nations’ Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent and called for the removal of police from schools, a position the international group subsequently endorsed in its recommendations to the United States. Finally, some eight months later, the charges against Kenny and Shakara were dropped. Officer Fields, however, was never charged with criminal wrongdoing, although he was fired.

Maria Fernandez, a longtime youth organizer who coordinates the Advancement Project’s police-free schools work, said the assault “energized a movement around criminalization that goes beyond suspensions.”

“That changed everything for everyone,” Fernandez said in a joint AEJ/Advancement Project report titled We Came to Learn: A Call to Action for Police-Free Schools. “It woke people up to what is happening. It made people more willing and ready to fight the fight around school police.”

#AssaultAt and #EndWarOnYouth

When George Zimmerman was acquitted of the fatal shooting of Black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, youth members of AEJ from across the country were attending the Education for Liberation Network’s “Free Minds, Free People” biannual conference in Chicago. Fifty young people huddled together in the hotel room of Jonathan Stith, AEJ’s national director. According to Stith, the “young people were really scared, they were terrified, they were heartbroken.” The young people consoled each other but also committed to take action. Within a week, AEJ mobilized a delegation of 100 youth to go to Tallahassee, Florida, and join the Dream Defenders and Power U Center for Social Change when they occupied the Florida State Capitol, demanding an end to the state’s “stand your ground” law that was used to justify Zimmerman’s actions. Stith says the action helped shape a new direction for AEJ and the struggle for police-free schools:

That was a real powerful movement-building moment for us where . . . we were like, “Y’all are not alone in this struggle.” Young people ultimately understood that Trayvon could have been all of them or any one of them.

The next year, Black residents of Ferguson, Missouri, took to the streets to protest the shooting by a white police officer of unarmed Black man Michael Brown. Youth organizers affiliated with AEJ came to Ferguson to offer their support and organizing expertise. That summer they faced armed police and tanks in the streets of the city. When they returned to their hometowns, they realized that Black students in schools faced the same police as Black residents in Ferguson. Stith said Ferguson pushed AEJ to broaden its focus to demand an end to what it called the war on youth:

It seems like young people are dying every day and getting shot down by police. We’re a movement-building alliance, so it became clear: Our stuff is bigger than education. School is our base. We believe schools transform society and society can transform schools. Coming back from Ferguson, young folk were saying it feels like there’s a war happening to them, that they’re dying every day, that it feels ever present.

The alliance developed an analysis that students of color were facing state sanctioned violence and launched a campaign to #EndWarOnYouth. AEJ also started a rapid response initiative labeling instances of police abuse at schools with the hashtag #AssaultAt and providing support to local organizing groups responding to violence. With the Advancement Project, AEJ developed protocols for local groups to follow, provided strategic communications, assisted in research and political education and analysis, and advised on campaign development strategy.

The rise in awareness of racist police violence and the militant response by the Movement for Black Lives emboldened AEJ members and other school-to-prison pipeline organizers. Before Ferguson, according to Stith, demanding police-free schools was seen as unwinnable. “But with Black Lives Matter happening, the question of police is up and people have gone to Ferguson. They came back ready to fight.” The two movements — Black Lives Matter and educational justice — came together as it turned out that many Black Lives Matter activists had been trained in organizing when they were members of youth groups. Patrisse Cullors, for example, was trained as a youth leader by the Labor Community Strategy Center before she co-founded the Black Lives Matter movement. For their part, Stith and other AEJ organizers ended up writing the education platform of the Black Lives Matter movement.

AEJ’s rapid response #AssaultAt campaign brought national focus to the move toward police-free schools, as it highlighted case after case of police violence across the country. In May 2016, a Philadelphia school police officer assaulted Brian Burney, a youth member of the AEJ-affiliated Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), for trying to go to the bathroom without a pass. When the officer refused to let Burney use the restroom, Burney threw an orange at the wall out of frustration. Officer Jeffrey Maciocha punched Burney twice in the face, slammed him down on the floor, and put him in a chokehold; he was later diagnosed with a concussion. 

It was labeled #AssaultAtBenFranklin and the AEJ supported PSU in a campaign to demand justice for Burney and call for diverting funds that support more than 400 police officers in schools to pay for counselors, nurses, and restorative practices. After weeks of protests and rallies, PSU won a commitment from the district to reduce the size of the school police force and create a complaint system for students and parents, only the second school police force in the country to establish such a system. Meanwhile, Black parent organizers from the Journey for Justice Alliance came to Philadelphia to stand with young people, helping to build a consensus against the presence of police in schools in the wider educational justice movement.

By 2018, AEJ had identified 61 cases of police violence in its #AssaultAt campaign; by 2020, it had identified 145 incidents. While AEJ was able to document and support many of these students and groups, the alliance believed the cases represented only the tip of the iceberg of police abuse in schools. AEJ helped link the struggles together, taking up the wider call for removing police from schools as the next iteration of the movement to end the school-to-prison pipeline.

Laying the Foundations for Police-Free Schools

AEJ was not alone in its call for police-free schools, as momentum had been building for a while. Beginning in the late 1990s, students of color had been criticizing the heavy police presence in schools, as well as metal detectors and searches, charging that their schools felt like jails. Even as community groups began to focus on exclusionary discipline as a driver of the school-to-prison pipeline, they had also become concerned with excessive and unwarranted police arrests of schoolchildren, and the topic was covered in the Advancement Project’s 2003 report titled Derailed! The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track

Among other early campaigns to address school policing, the Los Angeles-based Labor Community Strategy Center launched a campaign in 2007 to stop the practice of police ticketing students for truancy as they entered school late; student leaders in the group later got the LA School Police to return military grade equipment and a tank that they had received from the federal government in its 1033 program. In opposition to the call for more armed police in schools after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the Los Angeles-based Youth Justice Coalition initiated a national campaign called “You Can’t Build Peace with a Piece” that included scores of youth groups across the country and was endorsed by the national Dignity in Schools Coalition (DSC). Also in 2012, responding to the murder of 20-year-old Raheim Brown by a school police officer outside a school dance, the Black Organizing Project (BOP) in Oakland became the first community organization to win a formal complaint system for police abuse in schools for students and families. Recognizing the limitations of this kind of reform, BOP built on its victory to launch a campaign, setting a goal for the complete removal of police from Oakland schools by 2020. Then, in 2013, Padres & Jóvenes Unidos (PJU) in Denver became the first community group in the nation to broker a written agreement between police and a school district to differentiate between disciplinary and criminal issues and limit the role of police in schools to criminal offenses.

Nevertheless, while many organizers in the school-to-prison pipeline movement long opposed a police presence in schools, many people in the communities their organizations served were so used to the presence of police in schools, and the justification that police were necessary for student safety, that it took time to convince them that police should not be stationed in school.

Nevertheless, while many organizers in the school-to-prison pipeline movement long opposed a police presence in schools, many people in the communities their organizations served were so used to the presence of police in schools, and the justification that police were necessary for student safety, that it took time to convince them that police should not be stationed in school. From the early days of organizing for the removal of police in Oakland, BOP organizers like Jackie Byers recognized that “some people within our own communities feel like they need police, that it’s a necessary evil in our schools,” according to the We Came to Learn report. “When we began to challenge that, we got a lot of pushback. Folks were asking for alternatives. They wanted us to guarantee 100 percent that we would keep all children safe without police.”

Dignity in Schools launched its Counselors Not Cops campaign in 2016, providing its 120 member groups with a set of resources to support campaigns to remove police from schools. DSC featured the new campaign in its annual Week of Action that year, with local organizations adapting the demands to their context and needs. Some, for example, called for reductions in police or limitations to their role in schools as a step on the road to full removal.

By 2017 the movement for police-free schools was in full swing. Building upon its #AssaultAt campaigns, AEJ and the Advancement Project sponsored the first national meeting for police-free schools in 2017 with the Black Organizing Project, Coleman Advocates, the Strategy Center, Power U, and El Puente. In September of 2018, the partners issued the We Came to Learn report on school policing and an accompanying action kit for local organizations. This grouping formalized itself into the National Campaign for Police-Free Schools and, in December of 2019, adopted a resolution calling for the abolition of police, declaring themselves abolitionists:

Police-Free Schools means dismantling school policing infrastructure, culture, and practice; ending school militarization and surveillance; and building a new liberatory education system. We believe removing police from our schools is a seed for removing them from our communities. We are abolitionists, grounded in our respective freedom traditions together. #PoliceFreeSchools, like abolition, is a practical organizing tool and a long-term goal.

Although community organizations had a growing number of compelling stories of abuse at the hands of police, the movement was hampered in its early days by a lack of systematic data about the presence of police in schools and their interactions with students, including assaults and arrests. However, the U.S. Office for Civil Rights began requiring schools to report the relevant data for the 2015–16 school year. In 2019, the ACLU published its analysis of the 2015–16 data, revealing that nearly half of all public schools were patrolled by police. The report revealed that 1.7 million students attended schools with police but no counselors; 3 million attended schools with police but no nurses; 6 million attended schools with police but no school psychologists; and 10 million students attended schools with police but no social workers. The report found that schools with police were more likely to criminalize students, with 3.5 times as many student arrests as those without police. Overall, there were more than 230,000 school-based referrals to law enforcement and 61,000 school arrests that year. Students of color and those with special needs were disproportionately criminalized, with Black students three times as likely to be arrested as white students; in some states they were eight times as likely. Black girls were particularly criminalized with arrest rates four times that of white girls. Meanwhile Black and Latino boys with disabilities constituted 3 percent of students but made up fully 12 percent of school arrests. Other research showed that LGBTQ+ students were twice as likely to be arrested and detained for a nonviolent offense compared to their peers, while immigrant and undocumented students also suffered from enhanced surveillance and threats of deportation. The ACLU report concluded that most arrests were not for violent behavior but for minor misbehavior, while other research also suggested that arrests were for infractions like “disturbing school” or “disorderly conduct.”

There was no evidence that the presence of police made schools safer. Despite the tremendous growth in school resource officers across the country, no systematic studies have shown they have increased safety. An increasing number of studies, however, have shown the harmful effects of police in school, making schools less inclusive and more prone to racialized disciplinary measures. Instead of police, movement organizers called for restorative justice and the presence of peacebuilders in schools, as groups increasingly piloted these approaches.

Meanwhile, the movement for police-free schools and justice reinvestment campaigns fueled each other. Justice reinvestment calls for diverting funds from policing and criminal justice into support services, education, and community programming for youth. The Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles, for example, campaigned to remove funds from law enforcement to instead fund youth services.

Although prior to 2020 no district had removed police from schools, the number of partial victories — reducing police presence in schools and limiting its role — continued to mount. In the fall of 2017, as a result of a community-based organizing campaign, Toronto district public schools removed police from the 45 high schools where they had been stationed. Toronto is a Canadian rather than U.S. case, but the victory nevertheless inspired the U.S. movement by showing that a large, urban school district can operate safely without police. AEJ organizers traveled to Toronto to learn from the successful campaign. According to Stith, “We felt if it can happen in Toronto, it can happen here!” 

Mass Protests Tip the Balance

When the mass protests against police racism erupted after George Floyd was murdered in 2020, the police-free schools movement built on the foundation it had laid over the previous years to quickly push school districts to remove or defund police in schools. In short order, youth and parent organizing groups that had fought for years to push back against police in schools in Minneapolis, Denver, San Francisco, Portland, Milwaukee and several other cities, won historic victories as school districts ended their contracts with school police. Youth organizers in places like Los Angeles got the district to cut the school police budget significantly.

BOP scored a major victory when it got the Board of Education to adopt its George Floyd Resolution to entirely eliminate the Oakland Schools Police Department, the first in the country to do so. Although BOP’s original 2012 declaration of the goal for the complete removal of police from schools by 2020 was seen as “pie in the sky,” the group had persisted. In 2019 BOP published an extensive People’s Plan for Police-Free Schools and had already been lobbying for its passage when the 2020 protests erupted. With passage of the resolution, BOP won the reallocation of funds previously used for sworn police officers to student support positions and launched an inclusive, community-driven process to adopt a revised student safety plan that enhances student safety, learning, and well-being rather than criminalizing young people. As BOP organizer Jessica Black said to KQED a day after the Floyd resolution passed, “We’re proposing to have students learn social skills, to have students learn how to build relationships, to have teachers learn how to build relationships. We’re proposing to change the entire school culture and climate.”

For many observers, the police-free schools movement seemed to emerge out of nowhere. In fact, however, it had been carefully prepared over the years by youth and parent organizing groups in places like Oakland and nurtured by the national movement to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Organizing groups had been active in almost every city that first defunded or removed police from schools. Groups like BOP had proposals in hand, had built relationships with sympathetic officials, and had educated a base of young people and parents ready to mobilize quickly. Momentum built rapidly from the early victories and by the end of 2020, 138 school districts announced they would remove police from schools.

Soon after, though, a “whitelash” set in, with some parents, typically white parents but with some support in communities of color, and the media sensationalizing incidents of violence at schools to call for the return of police to schools and the strengthening of disciplinary measures. This countermovement connected to a larger right-wing backlash against the gains of the anti-racist movement, calling for an end to teaching about critical race theory in schools — or, in reality, teaching anything about the history and current reality of U.S. racism. The movement is now in a complex period, with organizers in some places defending their gains against these attacks while organizers in other places push forward, and groups like Black Lives Matter at School and others help to create a larger movement to challenge white supremacy in public education and work toward creating true safety, humane treatment, and liberatory education for students in public schools.

Reflecting on this history, Stith notes that when young people and parents of color first started naming the school-to-prison pipeline and calling for an end to zero tolerance, “we were called crazy. Nobody believed us. After years of organizing, ending zero tolerance and the pipeline became the official position of the U.S. government. Now, police-free schools are the next frontier.”

A version of this article appears in Mark R. Warren’s recently published book Willful Defiance: The Movement to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline, available through Oxford University Press. Visit for more information and to order the book. Warren ( is professor of public policy and public affairs at the University of Massachusetts Boston and co-founder of the People’s Think Tank on Educational Justice. He studies and works with community, parent, and youth organizing groups working for racial equity, educational justice, and community liberation.

Illustrator Howard Barry’s work can be seen at