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Police Violence: New Jersey Bill Puts Onus and Blame On Children

This bill calls for “mutual cooperation and respect” concerning interactions with police—and it misses the point.

Last Thursday, a bill requiring students to learn how to interact “with law enforcement in a manner marked by mutual cooperation and respect” passed through the New Jersey Assembly. It received unanimous, bipartisan support.  

And it misses the point.

The New Jersey bill calls for “mutual cooperation and respect.” Yet, a system that currently feeds the school-to-prison pipeline and criminalizes age-appropriate behaviors fails to meet the standards of mutual cooperation.

In essence, the bill makes police interaction a mandatory component of the social studies curriculum. It comes with the goals of teaching K­–12 students, among other things, “the role and responsibilities of a law enforcement official in providing for public safety; and an individual’s responsibilities to comply with a directive from a law enforcement official.” 

The legislation uses language similar to Texas Senate Bill 30, signed into law earlier this year and also backed by bipartisan support. In the New Jersey bill, a caveat was added in to address concerns over the initial draft: This add-on explains that students would also be taught the constitutional rights they possess during interactions with police.

A system that currently feeds the school-to-prison pipeline and criminalizes age-appropriate behaviors fails to meet the standards of mutual cooperation.

Despite this compromise (and despite bill sponsor Sheila Oliver’s claims to the contrary), the bill unquestionably puts onus and blame on victims of police violence and stymies teachers’ efforts to confront issues of police misconduct with students. It also sets a dangerous precedent: legislating the acceptance of systemic failures that disproportionately affect, or will affect, marginalized student populations.

To be clear, incidents of police violence have a disproportionate impact on people of color, especially black people. According to the Washington Post’s database on police violence in the United States, 492 people have been killed by police in 2017, including 16 kids (under age 18)—just one fewer than the total number of children killed by police in all of 2016. Despite accounting for roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population, black people account for 24 percent of the deaths at the hands of police in 2017. 

Simultaneously, research has illustrated a tendency of law enforcement officers to view black children as older and less innocent, leading to increased likelihood of using physical force against them. 

Whether one looks at the data, research or viral videos out of Texas and South Carolina, there clearly is a need for additional education—but not education aimed at kids. Rather than asking what kids can do differently in their interactions with police, legislators should be asking, “Why are we worried about kids surviving interactions with the police?” That’s a question K­–12 coursework can’t answer.

492 people have been killed by police in 2017, including 16 kids (under age 18)—just one fewer than the total number of children killed by police in all of 2016. Despite accounting for roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population, black people account for 24 percent of the deaths at the hands of police in 2017. 

A more equitable approach would be to mandate education for police. Imagine if the people responsible for protecting law and order received training in cultural competency, responsive practices and child development, and learned how to recognize and address their own implicit biases and prejudices. Coupled with de-escalation training and crisis prevention, such education would mitigate issues that arise when officers feel threatened by perceived disrespect.

Educators should have the freedom to examine police misconduct in a way that speaks to their students’ truths and needs—including the need to understand and seek justice. A comprehensive lesson on this subject requires broaching topics of power, systemic racism and injustice. It also necessitates looking at how the history of law enforcement in the United States informs present-day police violence and mounting calls for police reform.

As educator Jamilah Pitts argues in the latest issue of Teaching Tolerance, teaching students about the role of collective action in movements such as Black Lives Matter opens an important door of discussion.

New Jersey’s proposed mandate, however, threatens to propagandize students into believing a lack of manners justifies violence. It’s a problematic message that simplifies a historically troubled relationship between state and citizen. Teaching constitutional rights adjacent to a course designed to engender obedience only serves to illustrate how fragile those rights can—and in many cases have—become.

As Jarvis DeBerry wrote for The Times-Picayune, “Any legislation that suggests that civilians—including children—need to do more to stay an officer's hand ignores that police are allowed to use lethal force only when there's a threat and not just in response to resistance or disrespect.”

Black parents who have had “the talk” with their kids about dealing with police understand the hope that obedience could save innocent lives. But legislating that hope sends a message that the state—and, by extension, schools—have accepted systemic failure as the status quo.

Collins is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.