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OPINION: Paradigm Shift

Black children deserve public schools that are communities of care, not overpoliced.


As a longtime educator and a parent, I am running for the 5th District Richmond School Board seat because I want to ensure that public schools are places of equity. Regardless of race or socio-economic status, a child should be able to learn in a safe and nurturing environment without police presence. 

Since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, people in Richmond and around the country are protesting police violence, demanding the removal of Confederate iconography and envisioning policies that create racial and economic justice. It builds on the work of the Justice & Reformation movement in Richmond that formed after the unjust police killing of Marcus-David Peters. The issue of police violence is personal to me. In 1993, my father, Marcellus Miller, was shot to death by two police officers in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at a water pump behind an Arby’s restaurant where he had been sleeping for months. 

A Purple Heart decorated Vietnam veteran who was injured in combat, he received a less than honorable discharge when he refused to return to battle after his shrapnel wounds healed. Upon returning home, he began to show mental health issues. My father was so outside of his mind and having such difficulties with life that he decided to travel around the country, finally ending up in Florida. 

When officers responded to an armed robbery at the Arby’s, they shot my father once in his side and five times in the back -- claiming he attacked them and their police dog with a screwdriver. Their stories changed a few times. A grand jury refused to indict the officers. I was traumatized and did not know how to process it all.  Because there was no widespread consciousness questioning police violence at the time, the gut reaction of many was to explain it away: “Well, he did have a trespassing charge years ago; it seems he may have assaulted someone at such and such a time.” Now I know that there was nothing my father did to deserve what happened to him.  He, like Marcus-David Peters, needed help, not death.

At the June 22 School Board meeting, Superintendent Jason Kamras announced his staff will conduct a 90-day review of the relationship between the Richmond Public Schools and the Richmond Police Department. There needs to be evidence that the voices of families and educators have been taken into account and that no one voice is deemed more important. It is my belief that law enforcement does not belong in the public schools. 

School resource officers, known as SROs, did not always patrol the schools and only came into being in the 1950s, when there were fewer than 100 officers in schools across the country. However, with the 1980s came the tough-on-crime stance of many policymakers and an enhanced police presence.   

Following the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in white suburbia, lawmakers ushered in laws that criminalized students and brought more police into our schools. According to the Advancement Project, the federal government provided $750 million to hire more than 6,500 school police officers across the nation. As a result, majority Black schools often have the trappings of penal preparatory institutions. With daily interaction with law enforcement in their schools, vulnerable children are more likely to be treated like criminals.         

While there is no evidence that SROs stop gun violence in schools, it is clear they sweep more Black children into the criminal justice system. Children attending a policed school are more likely arrested for minor misbehavior and brutalized with police tasers. Most school shootings take place in small-town America with white shooters. Nevertheless, Black children pay the price with armed officers that funnel them through a school-to-prison pipeline. 

Constant policing is not practiced in every community. Police departments have largely forgotten their duty is to protect and serve, and they now believe their role is to control people’s behavior, most often asserted in poor Black neighborhoods. The Police Department is the second-largest item in the Richmond city budget. Law enforcement is big business – profits are made off the criminalization of human beings. Our schools must not participate.

How much of the police budget could be dedicated to fulfilling the needs of our children? The needs of our children are great and the difficulties are many. Richmond is a city that is 42% white yet whose public schools are 86% Black and brown.  Our city has been deeply impacted by housing segregation and gentrification. As products of inter-generational exclusion, redlining and other punitive policies, many Black children are barred access to benefits that others enjoy. This is not by accident, nor is it something that mythical bootstraps will overcome. It is structural. We need a paradigm shift in funding and policy.

It is crucial that the School Board advance policies that signify true equity. That starts with a needs-based budget process, where the public participates and where we force our city to reckon with what is and is not being provided and give opportunity for our city’s leadership to rise to the occasion. 

Richmond needs more robust after-school programs and counselors who have worked with children like ours who attend the Richmond Public Schools. We need staff that comes from the community. We need high-quality staff you can attract and retain once the School Board has done the work of ensuring these are high quality jobs with fair compensation and professional autonomy honored. There is no panacea for ending racism, but the least we can do is ensure that our schools are nurturing – that means free from over-policing, both in our neighborhoods and at school. Marginalized children: Black, brown, exceptional and underprivileged, deserve the same quality education that affluent children enjoy.

All children deserve schools that are communities of care. We can do this.

Stephanie Miller Rizzi is an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, a mother of two sons, two dogs and many trees, a community worker and someone who will never stop trying to avenge her father’s death by educating others about why policing needs to evolve.

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