Transcription of the episode “Too Late For Reform: Abolishing the Police in Schools”

Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:16] And I’m Jon Moscow.  Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Toni  Smith-Thompson. Toni is a Senior Organizer in the advocacy department of the New York Civil Lberties Union, NYCLU. She focuses on campaigns to strengthen public education, including campaigns to reduce school suspensions and arrests, promote equity through school integration, and affirm students’ First Amendment right to engage in protest. You might recall our interview with three Beacon High School students a couple of weeks ago. Toni is a Beacon graduate and a public school parent. Welcome, Toni.

Toni S-T: [00:00:49] Thank you. So happy to be here.

Amy H-L: [00:00:52] A couple of days ago, you tweeted that, “Electeds saying Black people want more cops is so disingenuous. What we want are thriving communities, but policing is the only consistent resource. No one is saying less education, more cops. Y’all are the ones telling people to choose cops or nothing.” Could you unpack that for us? 

Toni S-T: [00:01:14] Sure. So many of us watched into the late hours of the night, wee hours of the morning, the City Council vote on the City budget. And there were a lot of comments by Council Members who were reiterating that this budget was a victory. And within those comments were remarks about efforts to defund the police, the current movement in New York City, in concert with movements across the country to defund the police, not being led by communities of color. And how there were outside actors and people who had never been seen before, who were the ones who were leading this charge, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

And then other comments they made said that actually the members of their communities want police and they were voting in accordance with what their communities were calling for. And I’ve heard these comments a lot. We’ve heard these comments a lot. We’ve heard them for decades where a reason for not divesting from policing or not decarcerating our jails and prisons is that communities of color want this, you know, this is how communities of color define safety, that, you know, cops are the solution and this is the way this, this is what works and this is what should be.

And what is often lost in that very public narrative, which is talked about in communities and certainly in spaces where I work and live and know  and love people is that we’re asking for lots of kinds of resources, whereas we’ve consistently asked for more resources for education and social services and public parks and access to jobs and everything else you expect people to have to survive and thrive. And so when communities of color have asked for a myriad of resources, the resource that is most consistently provided are law enforcement responses and carceral responses. And so it’s really disingenuous to say communities of color want more policing or parents of color want metal detectors in their children’s school.

No, what we want is to feel safe and supported in our communities. And the only resource that has been consistently provided, to provide even the smallest notion of that, have been law enforcement incarceral responses Giving someone the free choice between communities that have what they need to be self-sufficient and thrive or communities that don’t have any of those things, but we’ll give you a few cops and some metal detectors, then you’re asking people to choose between cops or no cops. You’re not actually asking people what they want and then responding accordingly.

Jon M: [00:04:10] So speaking of the budget negotiations, what do you think about the budget agreement that supposedly reduced the New York police department, the NYPD, budget by a billion dollars, including by transferring the payroll for school safety officers or SSOs to the Department of Education. Were  these meaningful steps?

Toni S-T: [00:04:33] So at the time of the vote, it was clear that the $1 billion, the $1 billion minimum, had not been met and advocates were very clear at the time of the vote that this budget did not go far enough. In the days since, the information we’ve gotten has only further confirmed that. And so the $1 billion was made up of a combination of shifting monies from one agency to another, most notably from the NYPD back to the DOE for school safety, but also including things like cuts to capital improvements and cuts to overtime pay, which, in the last few days, there has been a good amount of reporting actually about how the NYPD does not adhere to limits on overtime pay, right. And there’s actually not much in place to ensure they don’t do it again despite saying that they will keep within the limits of this budget for overtime pay. 

And we’ve seen details that the cuts to capital funds actually don’t come out of their $6 billion budget. That those are actually separate funds. And so there ha–there is a lot of murky, tricky math that was at play. So it’s not a billion dollar cut. It’s nowhere near a billion dollar cut. And actually for this coming school year, school safety is not even going to be under DOE yet. They’re still going to be under the NYPD because we’ve been told this is a multi-year process. And actually, based on the budget figure, the budget details that are coming up now, the school safety budget actually went up a little bit. So school safety is still under the NYPD and there’s been a slight increase. So no, not much divesting has happened.

Amy H-L: [00:06:15] Wow. So eventually will the school safety officers be reporting to principals? 

Toni S-T: [00:06:24] So we don’t have a lot of details. Very few details. What has been said so far is that eventually principals will have a greater role in supervising somewhere during this multi-year phase-in, and that there will be different or additional training that officers will receive to be more in line with Department of Education climate or culture. So that could include things like de-escalation or training on implicit bias or restorative justice work. Again, unclear. We don’t have any details, but again, we’re still talking about more training for people who are police officers, and what the defund police movement has made very clear is that we are well past the time to keep trying reforms. More training is not the answer. Reforms are not the answer. And for me, and I think many other people, this is what amounts to just a mild reform. 

Jon M: [00:07:25] School safety officers make only about 25% of school based arrests. Why do principals call 911? 

Toni S-T: [00:07:34] So that’s a good question. We, I think we don’t, I don’t totally know all of the reasons for that. We don’t have the entire picture about why school safety officers only make up about a quarter of all arrests, but there are factors at play that we do know about. So one is that if someone at the school or someone in the community calls 911, regular cops show up. Cops that are not based in the schools show up. Before the Memorandum of Understanding that was put in place last year, cops could come to schools to arrest kids for anything unrelated to school. That is not supposed to happen anymore. And then school safety officers do not have cars. So if a student is being arrested and they need to transport that student, they’re going to call outside officers to come in. 

Jon M: [00:08:36] What will it take for schools to be able to move past this default to policing?

Toni S-T: [00:08:43] A lot. I mean, we’re still, we are not very many years into this broader conversation around equity and restorative practices. I would say we’re even, I would say we’re further along in conversations about equity than we are in actual restorative practices being practiced in schools. And so the conversation about moving away from policing includes a broader conversation about moving away from our default need to punish.

And so that includes the way we discipline students, which is heavily rooted in exclusionary discipline, like suspensions, classroom removals. It really means moving away from the way our generations have been raised. You know, I graduated from high school, I don’t know, 20 years ago. And there are people older than me and slightly younger than me as well. The education system that we came up in was heavily rooted in the system as well, you know? And there are many parents who say, you know, this is the education system I went through. Here’s how I learned. Here’s how I was forced to learn from my mistakes. Here were the consequences that I faced for my actions. And so you’re going to face the same thing. It’s like, that’s what I know. And that’s the only model that I have experienced. And so not only does it require us to change the policies and practices inside of our schools by all of the adults that are in the building, but you’re also talking about a broader cultural shift away from a culture that most of us have only known. Yeah.

Amy H-L: [00:10:25] Toni, when students ultimately return to school, whenever that may be, they will have lived through the first wave of a pandemic. Some will have lost grandparents or other family members. Some students’ families will have lost a primary source of income. They’ll  also have experienced what we hope is the first wave of the Movement for bBack Lives, which kind of laid bare the dangers and the disrespect that many Black and Brown people experience every single day. So having been multiply traumatized, what kinds of services will these children need when they get back to school and are they likely to receive them?

Toni S-T: [00:11:05] Yeah, we’re going to need a lot of services that are not likely to happen. I think. It simply because we are in such a financial crisis. And I don’t know that there’s a perfect world in the middle of a pandemic, right. But the adequate world after a pandemic would be an infusion of resources and the budget that was just passed really seemed to fight really hard for crumbs that had already been taken away.

And so we’re already operating at a deficit. Every school should definitely have at least one healthcare practitioner if we are still dealing with a pandemic and even if we’re not still dealing with a pandemic, right. That’s something that should have been in place already.

Kids are going to need more access to adults who are trained to deal with trauma, but also more adults to deal with how and what students and families need to overcome barriers to opportunities and resources, right. I mean, we are still faced with a system that sorts and ranks students by family resources and family situation and family background. We are still dealing with a school system that measures student success very narrowly. And you recently interviewed Michelle Fine, who talked a lot about standards and measures and how we measure student success and academic success. 

And so, you know, a lot of the resources that we’ve been calling for include school personnel that help families navigate the system, help families figure out these very complicated webs of how to figure out what school you’re going to go to and how to fill out the right forms and how to get in touch with the right people and how to make sure you don’t miss tours and how to make sure you can get access to free test prep programs, right. And how to make sure that the afterschool program that you’re looking for still has spots available because you knew to sign up when it first opened and the first six hours of it. There are so many types of resources that families are expected to know. There are so many resources that families need because they are expected to navigate this very complicated system that you actually can’t navigate without having a certain level of access to information and time. 

Amy H-L: [00:13:38] Well, aside from budget, it would seem to me that part of the problem is just school culture. So, you know, you have these kids, many of whom have experienced ACEs, you know, experiences that have traumatized them. And then we layer on the experiences of a pandemic and then perhaps the Movement for Black Lives. So clearly these are not the same kids who left school in March. And they’ll need help.  

Where is that help going to come from? 

Toni S-T: [00:14:16] A lot of it is going to need to come from schools. I mean, my mom is a principal. I come from a family of educators and I do know that there are many, many educators and administrators really trying to figure this out. And I think there are definitely schools and people who work in schools who recognize the very, very deep learning that students have been having over the course of this pandemic. Students may not have been signing in everyday to the Google classroom, students may not have been completing all of their assignments, but better believe they have been learning some serious, serious life lessons, right. And they’ve been learning, um, how to probably how to cope in ways that we, our generations did not have to.

Uh, and so this is a wonderful opportunity for us to really push forward with culturally responsive and sustaining education. This is a really good time to kind of upend these very narrow notions of what qualifies a student learning. And tapping into what students are learning just by living right now and finding the, the, um, like the energy and the mastery in that, and using that as a way to support students to keep on learning.

Right. It’s going to be really important to tap into. What is of interest to students? I think it is hard enough to engage in learning every day when on a good day, but when you’re faced with other kinds of life circumstances, it’s really hard to stay learning. But if you’re learning something that you’re deeply invested in that becomes much easier. And it becomes even easier when you have teachers and other adults around you who are really invested in your deep thinking, your deep inquiry, and what you’re passionate about and know how to bring that to the surface and nurture. 

There was another piece to your question. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve all been talking about re-imagining. Every industry has been talking about re-imagining. We’re reimagining education and sports and policing. We’re re-imagining everything. How successful we will be, we’ll see, right. But that  re-imagining has taken on a life of its own. And so I do think it’s an opportunity to probably up-end  everything. I mean, I’d say that there’s so much about our system of education that was never designed to make sure that everyone got a quality education that spoke to them, that gave them the access to opportunities that they wanted in their life, that we wanted in our lives. We know that the system has always been heavily rooted in making sure certain people were sort of groomed to take over power and some people who were groomed to be workers or not even that maybe.

And so I hope something that will be really important when we go back to the school in the fall, however we go back, is that when we are in moments of crisis, we tend to default to what we know best. We tend to default to the practices that are most known to us. And we tend to default to the ways that are easiest and quickest. And what students will need coming back to school is actually the opposite of that. Students will need schools and school cultures that are able to hold on to the newer practices of restorative discipline, restorative conversations, equity, anti-racist curricula, and practices and conversations amongst school staff and educators, kind of interrogating their classroom management practices to make sure that they’re uprooting biases that may be there. Also the practices that lead to racially discriminatory outcomes, which are so deeply embedded in our system.

And so what young people need from us is to face the crisis of the pandemic and face the, I don’t know if we want to call it a crisis, but a crisis of racial injustice that has now become a more mainstream or accepted conversation, and have adults really hold on to these two really difficult moments and not default back to what we know best, which is to deal with disruption quickly and swiftly and punish students and remove them from the classroom and label kids in ways that are best suited for datasets and tell them that they need to be different than they are. That is only going to compound existing traumas. 

One of the scenarios or many of the scenarios I’m thinking about as we prepare to go back to school, as a parent, as a school SLT member, as an organizer, is these plans that schools are required to develop for the fall are just plans, and no school plan goes the way it’s supposed to go because it’s a school. It’s living and breathing, and no day in a school is the same as any other day in the school. And so we’re going to go back to school in the fall and people are already worried about their own health and the health of their loved ones and cases of COVID-19 are rising across the country. And so in a school environment, you have a plan for students to be within certain pods throughout the day, you have a very specific plan to make sure you’re minimizing social interaction between people who are not in those pods. And you’re making sure that you have six feet apart and you’re making sure that there are masks. Like this all sounds good..

And well, it doesn’t even sound that good and well, actually, right. But schools are planning for what they’re told to plan for. What happens when there is a deviation from that plan? What happens when there’s a student who has a need in the moment that requires deviation from that plan, that requires a grownup to stop what they’re doing and tend to that student? What happens when a student is upset and takes off their mask and is crying? Is an adult next to them going to panic because now there’s crying without a mask and they’re worried about their own health? Do they respond by immediately telling a school safety officer, come get this kid and take them to this room by themselves so they can’t breathe on anybody? Are our students going to learn that they’re bad because they went and hugged their friend by accident because they didn’t remember that they weren’t supposed to hug their friends?

There are all of these scenarios that can happen in schools because they’re schools and without guidance from the DOE, without consistent reminders and messaging from every member of a school community, it’s very easy to default back to our fears. It’s very easy to default back to handling something in the quickest way possible, which is probably going to be the worst possible response from a child development perspective and from a learning perspective.

Amy H-L: [00:21:39] Will the adults in schools be prepared to respond to the children’s heightened social and emotional needs in addition to their need to satisfy academic requirements?

Toni S-T: [00:21:52] So how do you square needing to have a plan to boost attendance and participation in state tests for schools who have not had high participation rates in state tests, for example, how do you square that with making sure that every family and student is okay in this moment? And how do you make sure that your school is in good standing with the state by saying, look at these great attendance rates that we have, look at our great test participation rates when really what you’re trying to do is make sure every family is okay. And you’re trying to make sure that no family is being approached by the school in a punitive way, that you’re not communicating to parents about their child’s absences in a way that makes them wrong for whatever they’re experiencing?

And so I think inside of how to be an ethical school at this time. Of course, there needs to be trust among the school community, but understanding that we don’t exist as autonomous schools, that the schools are part of a larger system that has measures for success that are really impersonal and really take off and take the ethics out of the, you know, it takes the heart of the ethics out of the community because you can’t quantify in data, what it takes to run a supportive, ethical, equitable anti-racist school culture inside of a system that was not designed to produce those results. 

Jon M: [00:23:18] Tony, is there other stuff that you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?

Toni S-T: [00:23:25] I think I’d like to add, going back to policing in schools, the return of the funding for school safety to the DOE from the NYPD is something that people had called for before this moment. And actually before this moment, maybe something like this would have been considered a nominal measure of progress, even though we are far past that moment right now. But it’s important to remember that returning school safety to the DOE is not the goal. The goal is not to return to where we have been. And I have had lots of conversations with people around my age who came up in the New York City school system around the same time I did and a little bit before. And there are very mixed memories of school safety before they were under the control of the NYPD  and people have stories of being roughed up by school safety and have stories of school safety not being a positive presence. And so it’s important for us to recognize that what existed before 1998, when school safety was transferred to the NYPD, was not a restorative environment. We were still on the upward swing of criminalizing education, and we don’t want to return to that. 

I saw a quote from last year, when the DOE and the NYPD adopted the new Memorandum of Understanding. And City Council Speaker Cory Johnson said,” We are long past the Rudy Giuliani days in New York City. This is a new city with new values.” And reading that now just made me angry considering the recent vote. But also I thought  nope, Rudy Giuliani was mayor before school safety was returned to the NYPD, right. He spanned both of those periods. And I certainly don’t want to go back to that time when he was overseeing school safety under the DOE. First thing, it’s important for us to recognize that what we’re asking for now is not what we have seen before. We are in a new moment and we’re asking for a new model. And even though we’re now in what is supposed to be a multiyear process to transfer school safety to the DOE, that alone is not the goal either. The goal is to have police-free schools. The goal is to divest from policing, it’s to defund police, it’s to move society away from this hold on investing in systems of law enforcement and incarceration. And that goes way beyond where we have been before.

Amy H-L: [00:26:07] Toni, what would a restorative school community look like?

Toni S-T: [00:26:11] I am not a trained restorative practitioner, although I work with many of them. And we often hear about restorative justice as something to do, when it’s really an entire approach. It impacts everything from the way teachers relate to each other, the way teachers relate to students. It should include other personnel in the building, even people who are under the security definition. It is understanding that behaviors manifest because of some reason and so the goal is to get to the root of that reason. And to either reconcile. If there’s conflict between two people, the goal is to reconcile and sort of get to the root of it so that you’re not just patching over, but you’re getting, but you’re moving past it and so that a different kind of relationship with those two people or more people is possible. It takes more time, it takes training. 

Counter to what is currently put forth by people who are skeptics of restorative practice, it is not no-consequence, all right. Restorative practices don’t mean kids get away with it. It Is actually a much harder form of accountability, which requires people to really prepare, really be mindful of their own actions, but also repair harm when harm has occurred. And zero tolerance, discipline, punitive practices don’t do that. We know that they don’t actually stop behavior from manifesting. That it’s just a quick fix in the moment to stop it from impacting an environment in that moment. But it doesn’t actually stop that behavior. 

And so restorative practices are about creating school communities that can prevent a lot of those behaviors because you are in community, you belong to a place, you belong in a place. And in that place, you are accountable to the people around you. You are accountable for keeping the place you are in healthy and well cared for, that you have ownership in the maintenance of that place in a way that doesn’t exist when you are policed, when you are told to be obedient, when you are told that your thoughts don’t matter, you are just there to learn facts, but not actually to contribute to meaningful conversations. That’s what restorative practices means to me. 

I want to provide a few things that listeners can do toward this cause, toward this issue. So we talked a little bit about schools calling 911. And so moving school safety under the DOE does not automatically eliminate the ways in which police can be called into a school environment. And so one of the things that we do want people to do is for students and parents and educators,  part of the work is making sure you’re in conversation with your principal about how they are supporting a move away from the use of 911. As you know, there’s a role that we all have to play in reducing or eliminating the interaction between police officers and community members. And part of that in a school environment is to stop using 911 as a response for school-related incidences that don’t require that kind of emergency response. People call 911 for medical needs sometimes and other needs. So, but really having conversations in school communities about moving away from the default of using 911, often as the only response or the default response.

And then, because we have so much further to go, please keep tweeting at the chancellor. That same message, right. Tweeting at the chancellor that this work is not done, tweeting at the chancellor that we need to continue to remove the tentacles of law enforcement from spaces, which includes not using 911 and having alternatives instead to that. We need to continue holding the mayor and the City Council accountable to the promises they’ve made, which they have not made good on yet.

If this is going to be a multiyear process, we need to make sure that come next year, they haven’t forgotten that this was in fact a multiyear process. It is very easy in the like pendulum of time for winds to shift and suddenly next year there’s a different conversation attempting to take place that would actually reverse even the modest, kind of, the momentum that we’ve gained, the modest shifts that we’ve got in policies. And so there’s a lot that people can do to still be vocal online. A lot of people are showing up in person, which is great, showing up in person if that’s something that you do and keep having these kinds of conversations in your school communities, not just about the use of 911 and not just about the use of restorative practices in your school, but really having deeper conversations around our own beliefs around policing and what it means to have communities that are safe and thriving, because a lot of the work more broadly to defund police is going to require that there’s a broad cultural shift into believing that a new vision as possible, that a new reality as possible. And there’s plenty of literature  and there are plenty of webinars and other resources out there that speak into what that can look like.

Jon M: [00:31:39] And speaking of that, we’ll be glad to post any materials you’d like to send that you think would be helpful in that, in that discussion. Send them to us  and we’ll put them up. 

Thank you. Toni Smith-Thompson of the New York Civil lLberties Union.

Amy H-L: [00:31:56] And thank you listeners. If you liked this episode, please consider subscribing and giving us a rating or review. This helps other people to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles. Subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes.

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