Despite costing millions of dollars, punitive student discipline strategies implemented by the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) over the last decade have failed to improve school safety in the city and have taken a disproportionate toll on students of color, according to a new report from The Center for Popular Democracy and Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT).
Per the report, police have excessively targeted Black and Latinx children, shuttling them into the Wisconsin city’s school to prison pipeline. Black students, the report notes, make up 53 percent of the city’s student population, but account for 80 percent of suspended students. Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) expelled hundreds of Black students during the period examined by the report—school displine data is from the 2015-2016 school year, while the most recent law enforcement data available comes from the 2013-2014 academic year—while White students displaying similar behavior were only reprimanded with suspensions.
"Students in Milwaukee have long known that turning schools into police states provides no benefit and only harms young people. Now, we have the data to prove it," Dakota Hall, executive director of LIT, a student-led group calling for reform, said in an emailed statement. "The numbers in this report provide even more evidence that school discipline in Milwaukee needs a complete overhaul to let students feel truly safe and supported."
The criminalization of youth of color and youth with disabilities, according to the report, constitutes the most flagrant example of structural racism in the country. This violence, the report adds, and the hostile presence of police officers roaming school halls with guns and handcuffs, erodes students’ fundamental right to an education.
During the 2015-2016 academic year, for example, school suspensions and expulsions resulted in students missing 65,740 school days. Those interruptions frequently lead to lower academic performance, higher dropout rates and ties with the criminal justice system. The report notes that each high school arrest doubles a student’s chances of dropping out, resulting in a fiscal cost of up to $600,000 over a student’s lifetime.
The report says that MPD spends $15.6 million annually with the stated mission of improving school safety. The highest allotments of money go to safety assistants ($13.7 million), police officer programs ($1.1 million) and truancy officers ($435,000). Despite the money spent, MPD has failed to reduce truancy rates or create a safe learning environment, according to the report.
Programs that create nurturing and inclusive school environments, including an increase in guidance counselors, have been linked to drops in school fights and infractions, according to the report, which also suggests that MPD remove police officers and metal detectors from schools, end suspensions and expulsions, and discontinue arrests for misdemeanors:
"Education has always been a priority of mine. I believe that the first step to liberate my community is through education," said Joya Headley, a Milwaukee student and LIT member, in the emailed statement. "Knowing the underlying intent is not to educate but set me up for a prison lifestyle is heartbreaking."