The Metropolitan police wants to almost double the number of officers deployed in London schools in the coming years, despite recent pledges to review a programme that campaigners say already unfairly penalises Black pupils.
According to data obtained via a Freedom of Information request by VICE World News, there were 350 police officers (known as Safer Schools Officers, or SSOs) at London schools in 2019/20, a 19 percent increase over the last four years from 294 officers in 2016/17.
In response to the FOI request, the Metropolitan police said they intend to place more officers in schools in the coming years. “The [Metropolitan police service] has a long-term aspiration to reach 600 Schools and Youth Officers working with children and young people in the coming years,” the Met said. “The number of SSOs will continue to increase with an uplift in police officer recruitment across London.”
These increases come despite a pledge to review the Safer Schools Programme after a legal challenge was brought against the Metropolitan police earlier this year. In April, the family of a 14-year-old Black pupil launched a legal challenge against the Met after the boy, who is autistic, was investigated by the Crown Prosecution Service following a verbal disagreement at school. The judicial review was withdrawn after a commitment from the police to review the Safer Schools Partnership and its potentially disproportionate effect on Black students.
The Metropolitan police said that SSOs were “not there as a means to criminalise young people.”
But the growing number of police in schools comes at a time of increased tensions between police and Black communities, following the killing of George Floyd in the US. This year saw millions of protesters march in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in London and across the globe, prompting increased scrutiny of how police treat people of colour.
This May, during lockdown, stop and searches – a police tactic that disproportionately affects young Black men - skyrocketed. Official Met police figures show that 22,000 young Black men were searched between March and May, equivalent to a quarter of all Black 15- to 24-year-olds.
Campaigners have warned that an increase in police presence in schools means Black students are more likely to be targeted
“Those who are already marginalised by the state are going to be even more so by police in schools, and those who are already impacted by policing outside are going to feel the sharp end of this,” Roxy Legane, co-founder of No Police in Schools, a community campaign looking at increasing police presence in the education system, said. “It's the same police force that's disproportionately racist and harms people of colour in London, that are going to be in schools.”
Legane says an increase of police in schools could result in quicker criminalisation of non-criminal behaviour, such as in the case of the 14-year-old boy, and schools functioning as a space for information gathering. “Schools become just another avenue for surveillance and intelligence gathering…especially in a city that is often pointed to as one with issues of youth violence,” she said. “[There is a] climate of hostility for young people because of this increase in surveillance, and I think it will be a real acceleration of young people through to the criminal justice system.”
It’s not just London where police presence in schools is rising. Earlier this year, campaigners from the Northern Police Monitoring Project found that Greater Manchester Police had committed to placing 20 police officers in secondary schools in the 2020/2021 year – 19 more officers than the previous year.
Kate Osamor, Labour MP for Edmonton in north London, said: "I'm deeply concerned that a significant increase in the number of police officers in London schools could have a particularly detrimental impact on Black students. There is a high degree of anxiety, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, about the lack of progress which the Met police are making in tackling systemic racism.”
“Increasing police numbers in the current high-tension climate may therefore do more harm than good,” she continued. “The focus has to be on tackling the underlying causes of racial inequality in the criminal justice system and avoiding yet more over-policing of the Black community.”
In an emailed statement, a Metropolitan police spokesperson said SSOs were there to “forge positive relationships with students, act as a fixed and trusted point of police contact, and keep London’s young people safe by preventing and detecting crime that affects that school community.”
The spokesperson said that schools join the Safer Schools Partnership voluntarily, and that the Met believes the scheme is “enormously beneficial to all students, schools, and communities.”
“That is why there are plans to increase the number of Safer Schools Officers, and the [Metropolitan police service] is committed to ensuring that we recruit the right officers into these engagement roles,” the spokesperson continued.
”A key part of the SSO role is to promote positive life choices amongst all students, and offer diversion opportunities where appropriate.
SSP agreements are put in place which reflect the needs of a particular school, and there are strict data sharing agreements in place.
”SSOs receive trauma-informed policing training to educate officers in how childhood trauma can effect behaviour, and support them in early intervention and diversion. Their training also includes how vulnerable children, their parents and teachers can best be supported.”