As a pediatrician and future mother of black children, I am worried. I am worried about my patients who face possible death if they appear threatening to the wrong police officer, like Tamir Rice. I am worried about my patients who might be sleeping peacefully in their families’ home when law enforcement officials burst in with grenades like the ones that killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones. I am worried about my teenage patients who might be slammed to the ground at pool parties or dragged across the floor in their desks by people meant to protect them, as happened to black girls in Texas and South Carolina.
These are some of the more highly publicized recent cases of law enforcement brutality against black children, but there is scant data on exactly how often excessive force is used against kids who often are just being kids. The aftermath is harsh even in nonfatal encounters. Boys and men of color are often detained and searched at disproportionate rates, a phenomenon known as “stop and frisk.” This has been shown to increase mental health risks, as symptoms of anxiety and trauma are more common among young men who report frequent encounters with police, and correlate with intrusiveness of the encounters and perception of unfair treatment by police.
It’s not only black boys and young men who face disproportionate policing. A recent policy report found that black girls receive more severe sentences in the juvenile justice system. Furthermore, black girls are dissuaded from school attendance and participation due to increased presence of law enforcement and punitive disciplinary measures.
Schools should be safe places. In the setting of increased national attention to police brutality towards black children, schools must move from punitive disciplinary spaces to healing and affirming spaces. Many children come to school undernourished and carrying significant burdens of trauma, from classroom bullying to violence at home or in their neighborhoods. What if school systems focused a larger percentage of budgets on psychological resources and social workers, rather than in-house police officers who may not be trained to deal with recalcitrant children? (And which children are not sometimes.)
When I talk about safety with my young patients and their families, safety at school and in the presence of police officers should be givens. Let’s demand accountability for the safety and well-being of our children. Let’s make schools places where black kids feel safe enough to learn, and let’s provide adequate training for all police officers who may come into contact with children.
As pediatricians, parents, teachers, and community members, we shouldn’t have to worry about this anymore.