By Zuri Omar
The case of the 15year old Black girl who was stripped searched by police officers in her Hackney school has shocked and appalled many. It is horrifying that a schoolgirl could be treated in such a degrading manner while in school where she was meant to be safe. It is also a stark reminder of the impact that the growing militarisation, surveillance, and police presence is having on schools.
Child Q’s teachers believed they smelled cannabis on her. Despite searching her belongings, and finding nothing, the teachers called the school’s Safer Schools Officer who was not in the building at the time. That officer advised that they call 101 and ask for a female police officer (presumably to conduct a further search). According to the report by City and Hackney Safeguarding Children Partnership, two of the four attending officers strip searched a 15-year-old schoolgirl who was menstruating at the time. They refused her use of the bathroom and instead instructed her to remove her clothing, including her sanitary towel, bend over, spread her buttocks, and cough. Afterward, they made her put the used sanitary towel back on. Her teachers stood outside the room while this was happening. No one called her parents. No one offered the child any aftercare.
Whilst the details of this case and the way the school dealt with it are particularly grotesque, this is not an isolated incident. Black children, children with SEN and poorer children are more harshly disciplined and excluded at higher rates. The report, ‘Race, Poverty and School Exclusions in London’ shows that race and poverty have a direct impact on school exclusions. Irish traveller children were found to be four and a half times as likely to be excluded than the overall rate. For Gypsy and Roma children it was nearly four times as likely.
The report also found Black Caribbean children were nearly three times as likely to be excluded. Additionally, children eligible for free school meals were also three times more likely to be excluded than children from more middle-class backgrounds1. Contrary to popular imaginations, these exclusions are often due to subjective misdemeanours such as ‘persistent disruption2’ as opposed to violence, bullying, theft or damage. The disproportionate punishments are clearly racist.
We know too the links between school exclusions and criminal justice system. The Met police use disproportionate force against Black and other minoritised children; they use spit-hoods and tasers more often3 and stop and search them (including strip searching) at far higher rates. There were 9,000 strip searches of children in the past five years alone of which 2000 were under the age of 164. In fact, Hackney and Tower Hamlets BCU, the borough command that was responsible for strip searching Child Q, strip searched 25 children in the past year alone. Only two were white British. Despite this, there are currently almost 360 ‘Safer Schools’ police officers stationed in London’s schools.
The Safer Schools Partnership Programme was first introduced in 2002 under the then New Labour Government’s ‘tough on crime’ agenda. This programme took an unreformed and unrepentant racist police culture and brought it directly into our schools. It also turns teachers into quasi police officers and schools into holding cells, shortening the school-to-prison pipeline. Bad behaviour is now a criminal justice matter and the police a disciplining tool to be wielded against poor black and brown schoolchildren.
And there is a direct link between poverty and having police in schools.5 Data obtained last year by the Guardian newspaper saw that the Met have admitted to using poverty and deprivation as a metric in deciding on which schools to station a dedicated Safer School’s Officer (SSO) in. Schools with higher numbers of children in receipt of free school meals would receive more ‘intensive interventions’ from the Met. The school that Child Q attended in Hackney is one of them.
The strip search of Child Q has sparked a campaign led by 4Front Project, a youth organisation in Colindale who have brought together a consortium of 11 other youth organisations including No More Exclusions and No Police in Schools to demand an end to child strip search altogether. They are unequivocal that strip searching children is state sanctioned sexual assault. The umbrella has adopted the slogan #END STRIP SEARCH.
Hackney Account, a youth-led police monitoring group, have announced a series of grassroots community meetings in response to the issue of policing Black communities. The first of those meetings was widely attended and included the music artist, Akala and former superintendent in the Metropolitan Police Dr Leroy Logan MBE amongst the speakers.
Shortly after the safeguarding report into Child Q, protests were called in multiple cities across the country. The most widely attended were in London. On Friday 18th March, Hackney Cop Watch and the feminist direct action group, Sister’s Uncut, held a protest outside Stoke Newington Police Station. Placards read ‘No to Racist Police’ and ‘Police out of Schools’.
The same demands were made at the vigil on Sunday at Hackney Town Hall where over 2,000 people attended. The Voice Newspaper- Britain’s only Black newspaper – launched its campaign to Get Police out of Schools saying ‘[The Voice] will be working with activists to campaign for an end to the practice of teachers regularly calling police on their pupils, and a ban on police having offices in school premises.’
This is heartening. When the Voice newspaper and direct-action groups like Sisters Uncut and Hackney Cop Watch are on the same side of the conversation, there is hope.
Time and again the Met has made clear it sees poor racially minoritised communities as feral, dangerous and in need of over policing. It is unrepentant – and thus unreformable – and so we must create barriers between it and the most vulnerable in our society.
We must get police out of our schools.