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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

US human and civil rights groups confront the issue of police sexual violence including in schools




On October 18 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the Advancement Project, Alliance for Educational Justice, the National Women’s Law Center, the In Our Names Network, and Interrupting Criminalization hosted a national virtual event looking at how police and private security and other law enforcement entities perpetuate violence in schools, including through sexualization, sexual harassment, and sexual assault of students. Tarana Burke of the Me Too Movement and Andrea J. Ritchie, author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color moderated the event.


The next day (October 19) the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement about the issue of police sexual violence in the United States when officers, on or off duty, commit sexually abusive or degrading acts against others.


Both are far more serious issues than is generally known by the public.


"When school police are wrongly assumed to make schools safer, it is apparent that the experiences of Black girls and other students who are often targeted by law enforcement have not been centered in the analysis. We have learned that the pervasive militarized police culture at our middle and high school campuses permeates the day-to-day experiences of Black girls, and those experiences are deeply traumatic and harmful. We call on policymakers, educators and administrators to listen to Black girls and create schools that move beyond security theater to actual safety," said Bacardi Jackson, Deputy Legal Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center


At the October 18 virtual event it was revealed that over the past three years, all six organizations have collected data and engaged young people in community conversations to understand how the presence of police in and around schools affects their sense of safety and well-being in three independent projects. Across the board, the conclusions were similar: police and private security and other law enforcement entities perpetuate violence in schools, including through sexualization, sexual harassment, and sexual assault of students.

In a new update to their #AssaultAt report, gathering incidents of police violence in schools, Advancement Project and Alliance for Educational Justice analyzed 372 police assaults of students from 2011-2023 and found that:

  • Over 85 percent of police assaults in or around schools since 2011 have been against Black students, where race is identified. During the 2022-23 school year, Black students made up 80% of the students assaulted, Latine students were nearly 7%, and Indigenous young people were 13%.

  • In cases where gender was identified, girls made up over half of the victims of school police assaults in the 2022-23 school year (52.6%).

  • The third most frequent type of assault since 2011 – moving up from the fourth most frequent type of assault in a previously published report – is sexual assault. In the 2022-23 school year, sexual assaults account for 25% of all school police assaults against students.

  • School resource officers perpetrated nearly half of assaults against students, whereas security guards were the perpetrators in 21.6% of assaults, police at the school were involved in 15.7%, security officers in 7.8%, and multiple forms of police in 5.9%.

"We heard that cops do nothing to stop sexual violence in schools. We heard about police and private security in schools dress-coding, sexualizing, flirting with, harassing, following, and inappropriately touching and searching Black girls, trans and gender-expansive youth. We heard that girls and trans youth felt like it was pointless to tell anyone about it because nothing would change," said Shakeema Koonce, a researcher on the In Our Names Project.


From the conversations with young Black women and girls and trans and gender nonconforming young people hosted by the National Women’s Law Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center and by the In Our Names Network in Columbia, South Carolina, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area, several common themes emerged:

  • School policing does not create safety in schools.

  • Police and security guards contribute to school environments in which Black girls and trans and gender nonconforming young people are sexualized, sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, and gender-policed.

  • Black girls and trans and gender nonconforming young people do not feel comfortable reporting sexual harassment and assault by police, security guards, or other adults to authorities because they feel that:

    • They will be blamed or shamed for what happened;

    • They aren’t sure who to report it to;

    • They believe people with the power to take action won’t do anything to stop it;

    • There are no resources for survivors of sexual harassment or assault by police or security guards stationed in and around schools.

  • Black girls, trans, and gender nonconforming young people want to feel safe in schools, including from outsiders who would do them harm.

“These realities are not new - they are a significant part of what prompted me to found the ‘me too’ Movement,” Tarana Burke stated. “Starting with conversations with young Black women in the South and continuing with students in Philadelphia, I have consistently heard from young Black women that they are sexualized and experience sexual violence in schools, and that authority over reach from officials and those with authority like school ‘safety’ officers or police are part of the problem, not part of the solution.”


“Instead of increasing safety in schools, the presence of police and private security increases opportunities for sexualization, sexual harassment, and sexual assault, and gender policing, including in the context of routine searches conducted under the pretext of safety from weapons and drugs,” said Andrea J. Ritchie, author of Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color and co-founder of Interrupting Criminalization and the In Our Names Network.


According to the ACLU last month: "a 47-year-old Black woman named Ternell Brown filed a complaint against the Baton Rouge Police Department in Louisiana for hauling her to a warehouse and subjecting her to a sexually abusive search after a traffic stop. This is the same police department that in 2016 fatally shot Alton Sterling while he was lying on the ground, leading to uprisings. And now, three Baton Rouge officers have been arrested for allegedly destroying video evidence of excessive force during a strip search.


This is shocking, but not surprising. Sexual abuse, like that alleged by Ms. Brown, is one pernicious form of persistent police violence. And like excessive force, it grows from conditions that condone or fail to curtail police misconduct. To address police sexual abuse, authorities should prevent its occurrence and repair its harms.


Police sexual violence is when officers, on or off duty, commit sexually abusive or degrading acts against others. This may include sexual harassment, sexual assault, invasive and degrading frisks and strip searches, and sexual extortion. Police sexual violence is grossly underreported, but research shows it’s systemic. One study found that, over a 10-year period, a police officer was caught committing sexual abuse or sexualized misconduct at least every five days. Another found that sexual violence was the second most reported form of police misconduct, after excessive force.

The people most targeted by police for sexual violence are from historically marginalized backgrounds, including women of color, LGBTQ+ people, sex workers, and people vulnerable to threats of incarceration. For example, the ACLU and the ACLU of Montana recently filed an amicus brief supporting L.B., a Northern Cheyenne woman who was sexually assaulted by an on-duty federal law enforcement officer after calling for help. The officer coerced L.B. to perform sexual acts by threatening to arrest her and have social services remove her children.

This is not merely a problem of “bad apples.” It’s a problem enabled by power imbalances between officers and community members and a patriarchal culture of secrecy and silence. It commonly arises in police departments where leadership and local authorities ignore and tolerate patterns of abuse. One of us, for example, recently represented a Black man with a substance use disorder who was beaten and repeatedly punched in the groin by officers from the Bronx Narcotics Unit. There were 560 prior lawsuits against this unit, with over 150 for excessive force, including for sexually abusive conduct like strip searches and handcuffing a naked pregnant woman to a bed. The officers involved had previously been defendants in at least 50 lawsuits alleging similar misconduct. None appear to have faced consequences, and they’re still on the job. The Baton Rouge Police Department also has a long record of excessive force and brutality complaints.


There’s no simple solution to the problem of police sexual violence. A solid start, though, is acting to rectify the violence and repair its harm."


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