From police-free schools to policing-free schools
Hailey Yasmeen Dash and Mae Mason are members of the Asilu Collective, which Dash described as “a grassroots abolitionist collective fighting and organizing for police-free schools, but also policing-free schools, and to eliminate policing culture, infrastructure, and practices in schools across Ottawa.” Scott Neigh interviewed them about the group’s origins, its successful campaign to end the School Resource Officer (SRO) program in Ottawa schools, and its shift to a broader focus on the problem of not just police but policing in schools.
The racial justice uprising of 2020 brought new attention and energy to the centuries-old struggles against white supremacy, anti-Black racism, and police violence. Catalyzed by the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it brought people to the streets across the US and Canada, and around the world. It pushed significant elements of mainstream opinion to support defunding the police and introduced a new layer of activists and organizers to the broader goal of police and prison abolition.
It was this context in which Dash and two of her friends founded the Asilu Collective in Ottawa. At the time, the three of them were fairly recent graduates of Merivale High School. Like many other school boards in Ontario, theirs had a program that placed police in schools under the name of School Resource Officers.
The SRO programs were created in response to provincial legislation passed in the early 2000s that was ostensibly about school safety. That justification depends, however, on an understanding of “safety” and of how schools work as institutions that erases the experiences of racialized students – particularly those who are Black and Indigenous – and of students who are marginalized in other ways. Both research from across North America and an endless litany of personal accounts have shown that the presence of police makes schools less safe for many of those students. Dash used the language of the “school-to-prison pipeline” to capture the range of practices, including the presence of police in schools, through which Black and Indigenous youth have become vastly overrepresented in Ontario detention facilities.
And as Mason pointed out in the interview, while the use of the word “resource” in the name of the program suggests police presence as a sort of holistic good for the entire school, they are primarily a resource for administrators and teachers in managing conflict – and they do so in a way that actually makes it easier for administrators to not bother with the work of avoiding and preventing issues, and directs supposed solutions in punitive and carceral directions.
Defenders of the SRO program sometimes claim that its role includes prevention, but according to Dash what that actually translates into on the ground is what you might call “preemptive policing” – that is, not working to address root causes and avoid conflict, but instead “assuming the children and youth in these schools are criminals and they are going to commit some sort of crime and they are, like, worthy of punishment, before anything even happens. And that’s why the school resource officer exists.” She herself saw plenty of instances of administrators “weaponizing policing in schools,” particularly against younger racialized boys.
Mason said, “In reality, what’s needed in these schools – in all schools, and in all spaces with youth – is, one, the chance to make mistakes, and two, the supports to prevent those mistakes from becoming really traumatizing to the youth and everyone around them. And the supports to be able to navigate conflict in a way that will actually rectify it and prevent it from escalating or happening again in the future, which is obviously something that we don’t see with policing.”
Black and other racialized communities have been challenging the presence of police in schools for a long time – since long before SRO programs were formalized – and the 2020 uprising felt, to Dash and her friends, like an important moment to join in that work. (Mason joined the collective in early 2021, after learning about it through involvement in community advocacy related to the police budget.)
They started with a petition. They hosted teach-ins, as a tool for political education and to draw other youth into the work. They spoke to racial justice and other justice-focused clubs in different schools. In September 2020, they started exerting public pressure on the Ottawa Carlton District School Board (OCDSB), demanding that the SRO program be cancelled. They exerted pressure through mobilizing community attendance at board meetings, as well as by encouraging people to email and phone their trustees. They were very clear that they were not interested in another study of the issue, arguing, Dash said, that such research “has been done time and time again, even in Ontario,” and instead the program should be ended immediately.
Despite this, the OCDSB went ahead with a study, so in response, the Asilu Collective launched their own effort to give past and current students a venue to anonymously share their experiences with SROs. Mason said, “We wanted to make sure we were collecting our own data from the community in order to better hold Ottawa Carleton District School Board accountable in their own collection of data.”
Ultimately, the OCDSB report recommended ending the SRO program. There was then a period of public debate about it, which was very challenging, particularly for those most targeted by policing. As Mason said, “We had to hear all the trustees debate if those experiences were enough to change or end a program that had been found to have been perpetrating human rights abuses in schools.” In the summer of 2021, the OCDSB voted to end the program. In response to the loss of the program’s largest client, the Ottawa Police Service cancelled it in its entirety, meaning it was gone from the other three school boards in the city as well.
This was an important victory, and one well worth celebrating. But the Asilu Collective knew it was only a start. In conversation with other groups doing similar work across so-called Canada, the collective had been coming to recognize the importance of demanding not just police-free schools but policing-free schools. Police enact certain kinds of surveillance, regulation, and harm that disproportionately target Black and Indigenous people, and people marginalized in other ways. But they are far from the only source of such things – lots of other institutions and people enact the same kinds of surveillance, regulation, and harm.
In school contexts, that means a few different things. Some of the policing functions that had been done by SRO officers were taken up by administrators and teachers, whom Mason said “escalate their own policing in order to maintain a relatively similar status quo in their schools.” Other practices through which marginalized students are policed in schools had always been done by people other than the cops, and those just continued. And the administration could still call the police under some circumstances – and in their work supporting families, Asilu saw instances where administrators exaggerated or escalated circumstances to allow them to do so.
In some key respects, provincial legislation also continues to tie the operation of schools to formal policing, even without an SRO program. “There are tons of legislative expectations of policing that are set within schools through things like the Education Act and Safe Schools legislation as well,” Mason explained. “Principals and administrators and teachers have legislated duties to uphold certain carceral standards.”
Mason continued: “We have legislative expectations to police students. We have curriculum-based expectations to police students. … Along with, you know, all of the policing that administrators do on top of that in the halls, and in the bathrooms, and in the classrooms, it just leaves very little room for the students to be children and to be youth, and to explore, and to be curious, and to trust that school is a place that they can do that.”
With all of that in mind, after the win in 2021, the Asilu Collective decided to focus more on direct advocacy work, in support of students and families dealing with disciplinary processes and other specific injustices related to policing in Ottawa schools. They developed relationships and support networks with some of the small subset of teachers and other education workers who share their abolitionist agenda (and who also often face significant consequences for taking that position). They also did mutual aid work, community crowdfunding, set up a reporting tool to allow students to share their experiences anonymously, and ran a book club for youth as a political education measure.
More recently, in their work to support students and families, they have pivoted away from a focus on advocacy directed at schools and towards an even greater emphasis on building networks and resilience throughout the community, both to directly support people in ways that don’t depend on the state, and to build the kinds of relationships and capacities that will be needed in the future for more profound challenges to the status quo. Mason explained, “A lot of the stuff that is happening within schools is very entrenched. And having a bigger network to be able to confront those really big obstacles, and help parents connect with each other and speak with other people in their community is really powerful to be able to, you know, not feel so alone in these struggles.”
Dash said, “That pivot is really about recognizing that these networks of community care, they must be done to create a sustainable movement for ourselves and the folks that we support. And it’s so, so important that we do all of this outside of the state.” She said that the “work of dismantling” existing systems, as in the win against the SRO program, is “super important too.” However, she continued, “Cops are still showing up in schools and policing is still happening in schools, so we have to arm youth and their parents with knowledge and skills on, like, how to protect each other. Because at the end of the day, we keep each other safe. And we’re all we have in this white supremacist, settler colonial hellscape that we’re all living in, unfortunately. … This all has to be done outside of the state. And that even includes, for example, engaging too much with the school boards. It was very difficult for us to constantly be attending meetings with school board trustees who were very condescending, they were racist, they were ableist, they were completely dismissing the experiences of so many racialized and other marginalized youth and their families. And so that is hard to go up against all the time. And so, turning away from that, and supporting youth and their families in other ways is something we want to continue to prioritize.”
Mason concluded, “Wins don’t happen by motion or by vote, or by any kind of action that these trustees and other institutional powers take. They happen because of the strength and the cohesion of the community, and its power. So, tapping back into that, and placing the value into the community that is deserved – that’s something that we have to focus on, and build ourselves.”
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