Voices in Education

Students’ Safety as a Top Priority?
Safety is necessary for effective schooling. This is a sobering reminder worthy of earnest consideration, especially as children prepare to return to school for the start of another academic year. Discussions of the physical and psychological safety of young people have reemerged in national debates in light of recent school tragedies and the student activism that followed them. Shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and other schools in the US along with the spate of stabbings of teenage pupils across Britain continue to leave parents and the general public anxious about the security of young people in British and American public schools.
To assuage an otherwise fearful group of parents—politicians, policy makers, and educational leaders at the local and national levels regularly recommit to ensuring that the safety of young people in schools remains a top priority. Such pronouncements are often accompanied by pledges to increase the presence of law enforcement in schools, to install metal detectors, and perhaps most striking of all, to provide bonus pay for teachers who will carry guns in schools. Though the efficacy of such strategies is questionable, these approaches fail to meet the complex and wide-ranging safety needs of young people across a variety of contexts. The emerging safety measures for students in Britain and the US are limited in scope because they are largely school-centered, with little consideration of the larger social ecology of schooling that students navigate daily (Shedd, 2015). The travel routes between home and school—train journeys, cycling paths, walkways—are key dimensions of young people’s schooling experiences that must be taken seriously, if indeed we are interested in the safety and security of all young people beyond televised reports of national safety crises.
Finding a safe route to school can matter just as much as the safety in London and New York City public schools. This is the central provocation of my article in the fall 2018 issue of Harvard Educational Review. The article explores Black Caribbean youth’s experiences with stop-and-frisk in New York City and stop-and-search in London on their way to and from schools between 2007 and 2013. Ethnic distinctions did not afford them exemptions from stop-and-frisk in the presence of police authority. Participants revealed that their accents, deferential attitudes, and school attire did not save them from police scrutiny as they traveled through segregated and disadvantaged regions of global cities. Black Caribbean youth recounted being stopped, questioned, and searched in their local neighborhoods—at points for no clear or convincing reason. Additionally, participants reported feeling unsafe in the company of police officers who should, in principle, keep them safe. Not only did stop-and-frisk/search encounters influence their schooling experiences and affect students’ psychosocial well-being, but they also shaped their sense of belonging in British and American societies.
As an intrusive set of practices, stop-and-frisk/search disproportionately threatens the physical and psychosocial safety of young people of color (Laniyonu, 2018; Legewie, 2016). And yet, these microlevel policing practices that Black and ethnic minority youth in London and New York City encounter to and from schools seldom figure in national debates about the safety and security of students. For them, increased policing hardly suggests that their safety as Black youth matters. In fact, it heightens their vulnerability.
This then begs the question: for whom is safety, in practice, a top priority? The answer should be all our young people. Until this becomes our reality, it remains our responsibility as educational researchers, civil society leaders, teachers, and parents to listen closely to the safety concerns of young people and to collaborate with them to advocate for change until their safety is nonnegotiable in our schools and on our streets.
Laniyonu, A. (2018). Police, Politics And Participation: The Effect Of Police Exposure On Political Participation In The United Kingdom. The British Journal of Criminology, OnlineFirst, 1–23.
Legewie, J. (2016). Racial Profiling and Use of Force in Police Stops: How Local Events Trigger Periods of Increased Discrimination. American Journal of Sociology, 122 (2), 379–424.
Shedd, C. (2015). Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

About the Author: Derron Wallace is an assistant professor of education and sociology at Brandeis University. Prior to joining the Brandeis faculty, he served as a community organizer in London, working on youth safety, living wage, fair housing, and immigrant rights campaigns. He is the author of “Safe Routes to School? Black Caribbean Youth Negotiating Police Surveillance in London and New York City,” which appears in the fall 2018 issue of Harvard Educational Review.