Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

This year marks 400 “documented” years since enslaved Africans were brought to American shores. Centuries later, and we are still grappling with the ramifications of slavery. While African descendants are free in theory, a host of policies continue to criminalize black and brown people. Sadly, that criminalization begins in grade school and feeds the school-to-prison pipeline.

The school-to-prison pipeline is the patchwork of policies that proscribes children of color, punishing them more harshly and more frequently than their white counterparts. While many would question whether schools really criminalize students, that is exactly what school officials are doing when they respond to typical childhood misbehavior with harsh punishment or involve police in situations that could easily be handled with a discussion between teacher and child or administrator and parent.

Consider for example the recent case of the 11-year-old Florida boy who was arrested for failing to stand for the pledge of allegiance. He had a constitutional right to make his opinion known, but now faces criminal charges for doing so. This youthful student and his family must now deal with the trauma of being handcuffed, taken in police custody and put in juvenile detention. His relationship to police and the law will forever be tainted by this early life experience.

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Unsurprisingly, the school-to-prison pipeline has intensified in the aftermath of school shootings. One year ago, the nation was thrown into a state of shock and grief as yet another shooting on school grounds in Parkland, Fla., left 17 people dead and many others injured. The premeditated mass murder brought with it surprise, awe, pain, grief, distress, and oddly, added oppression. The white male student who committed the heinous act was not the first young white male to pull a trigger and kill students in mass. Seven years prior, another white male student in Newtown, Conn., shot and killed 20 young students, all between the ages of five and 10, and six adult workers. The teenage gunman later turned the gun on himself, fatally shooting himself in the head.

Both mass shootings rocked the nation. They also led to an uptick in police presence in schools. The school security industry has grown into a $2.7 billion-dollar market and may be considered a stimulus package and economic boost to areas with low employment rates. Unfortunately, police aren’t being dispatched to all schools, but often to the ones in urban (aka black and brown) communities. In some mid-western states, black students attend schools with a police officer at a rate that is 20 percent higher than white students, this despite the fact the Newtown and Parkland shootings were carried out by white male students in majority-white communities.

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In the early 1990s, school districts began rolling out “zero tolerance” policies which had the impact of pushing black and brown students out of the school building and into the criminal justice system—all for minor infractions.

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Since the Newtown and Parkland shootings, debates about school safety and police budget increases have intensified. Further, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos has given permission to schools to purchase weapons with school funding even though there is no proof, no research, and no data that supports more police in schools equaling an increase in safety. Life has taught the black community that more police often means more trouble for us.

To an uninformed observer, looking to police to keep children safe in schools is innocent and rational enough. However, the people who envision police keeping a watchful eye over school children would be shocked to learn that students sometimes need protection from the police. When there are police in schools, there is an uptick in school-based arrests and police violence against young black and brown students. This is a clear link to the students finding their way into the criminal justice system.

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Even though parents and youth organizers have long called on elected officials to support increased mental health services and invest in counselors, not cops, their pleas often go ignored. Courageous students and parents have lived with policies (offered in the name of safety) that have criminalized black and brown students, with some children being punished for being late for class, talking out of turn, or being out of uniform.

We all want to protect children, and we want our schools to be safe. But the school safety conversation must shift from a punitive approach to an evidence-based one. The Parkland and Newton shootings highlighted the extreme need for mental health services in schools. Federal data shows there are literally millions of students who have police in their school but no nurses, counselors, social workers, or a school psychologist.

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While slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment, the fine print allowed citizens to become slaves if they commit a crime or if they are perceived as a threat. School policies such as “zero tolerance” or policies that put police in schools have sped up the process of black “free” people becoming slaves to an unforgiving criminal justice system.

On the 400th “documented” year of enslaved Africans being brought to the United States, one has to wonder, are we—or our children—really free?

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H.A. Jabar is the director for Racial Justice NOW!/ West Dayton Youth Task Force, creator of the Culturally Relevant Curriculum Toolkit and author of three books. You can follow him on Twitter @hajabar.