Learning in Lockdown: School Police, Race, and the Limits of Law


Nationally, K–12 schools are increasingly relying on police officers and criminalized security measures like metal detectors and random searches in an attempt to make schools safer. In New York City, officers patrolling prison-like schools have acutely harmful effects, leading the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) to file a class action lawsuit in 2010 alleging the systemic violations of students’ Fourth Amendment rights. The reality of the harm, though, is far deeper than the law is presently capable of recognizing. In New York City, the vast majority of students harmed by school police practices attend highly racially segregated schools, including the named plaintiffs in the NYCLU lawsuit, all of whom attend schools comprised of at least 98 percent students of color. In addition to the racial disparity in the numbers of children exposed to harmful school police practices, the nature of the harm is disproportionately severe and uniquely far-reaching for nonwhite students. In this Comment, I explore the many layers of this harm through the lenses of the school-to-prison pipeline, psychological effects, citizenship, and the economic system. I then examine the ways in which federal antidiscrimination law fails to recognize such harm as discrimination, foreclosing lawsuits like the NYCLU’s from discussing race and confining them to tell obscured and incomplete stories. Ultimately, the law’s blindness to the reality of the harm compels lawsuits that only scratch the surface while limiting the voices of their class members. Though such lawsuits are essential for immediate, if partial, relief, significant reform for students harmed by school police officers will only come when antidiscrimination law recognizes the full racial nature of the harm.

About the Author

Aaron Sussman is Chief Executive Editor of UCLA Law Review, volume 59, and J.D. Candidate, 2012, at UCLA School of Law.

By uclalaw