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Excerpted From: Thalia Gonzßlez and Emma Kaeser, School Police Reform: A Public Health Imperative, 74 SMU Law Review Forum 118 (August, 2021) (74 Footnotes) (Full Document)
The COVID-19 pandemic brought racial inequality and structural discrimination to the forefront of national discourse. Simultaneously, the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020 fueled a social movement against police violence. The convergence of these social and health pandemics, each rooted in and sustained by racism, has led to the emergence of a new antiracist health-equity agenda. This multi-sectoral and transdisciplinary agenda is marked by a guiding focus on addressing the co-influential social, economic, political, and legal systems that uphold racism and affect both individual and population health. Within the movement for race-conscious health and public health approaches, there is a clear recognition that advancing racial health equity requires not only expanding access to high-quality and equitable healthcare, but also shaping health-impacting systems outside of the healthcare fields. To do so, scholars, researchers, and policymakers have increasingly turned their attention to how racism shapes the social determinants of health and social risk factors that drive health inequities. For example, leading public health law scholar, Professor Ruqaiijah Yearby, has developed a revised social-determinants-of-health framework identifying structural discrimination (racism, sexism, ableism, and classism) as a root cause of health inequities and law as a tool reinforcing racism in social-determinant systems.
Despite a commitment to system-level transformation and the significance of education as a social determinant of health, the antiracist health-equity movement has paid little attention to changing the structural conditions in schools that negatively affect BIPOC students' mental health, threaten their safety and wellbeing, diminish their social supports (school-based health-protective factors), disrupt their educational attainment, and place them at significant risk for justice system involvement. The absence of an antiracist public-health response to practices, policies, and systems of racism in schools that maintain white supremacy is a critical mistake. Though parallel and co-influential structures function in the U.S. educational system to diminish the health and wellbeing of BIPOC students, this Article specifically calls attention to the presence of police in schools and use of policing tactics. As the antiracist health-equity agenda evolves, there is a critical need for public health intervention to strengthen the defunding-school-police movement. Such intervention will not only provoke new discourse and promote rigorous exploration of the relationship between school police and health but, as importantly, will advance legal and policy changes that resist systemic oppression.
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To be clear, we are not asserting that public health and health law professionals should assume leadership of the defund-school-police movement. To do so would be reenacting the subordination that the antiracist health-equity agenda seeks to combat. Rather, public health and health law professionals committed to dismantling oppression should develop a collaborative vision with grassroots leaders for how their skills, expertise, and tools can enhance the defund-school-police movement. A wide range of opportunities exist for public health and health law professionals to support school police reform. For example, researchers can increase data on the impact of school policing on student health and conduct participatory community-driven studies that not only examine racialized health effects of school policing but also develop preventative and structural interventions. They can also play a role in articulating how divesting funds from school police and investing them in health-promoting interventions, such as mental health support and services, is a key return on investment by state and local officials. Advocates can advance legal reforms at the local (school and district) and state levels to limit the use of harmful, punitive school-discipline practices, including school policing. For example, they can serve as trusted health champions for the defund movement and testify before city councils holding budget hearings on the negative impacts of school policing practices. Academics can adopt a comprehensive antiracist curriculum inclusive of the examination of racism as a driver of health disparities, the social determinants of health, the effects of racialized school policies and practices, and the role of law in reinforcing structural racism in health-impacting systems. In all instances, the guiding principle to such antiracist work is disrupting the mutually reinforcing laws, policies, systems, and behaviors that fuel the persistence of racial health inequities.
Thalia Gonzßlez is a senior scholar, Georgetown University Law Center; Professor, Occidental College.
Emma Kaeser has her J.D. from Stanford Law School, 2021.
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