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Former Ravens player: To make schools safe, support kids, don’t criminalize them | COMMENTARY

Some believe schools need to do less policing and focus more on restorative practices.
Some believe schools need to do less policing and focus more on restorative practices. (© Tinnakorn Jorruang/Dreamstime)

Despite my 10 years in the NFL, the biggest hit I ever took was off the field, when I was 14 years old. My brother and I were driving to pick up our younger siblings when another vehicle hit us head on. I flew face first into the windshield, while our car’s motor crashed through the back window, leaving me with a broken foot and gashes that required over 400 stitches. Although I recovered, the episode scarred me, not just physically but emotionally.

Over a decade later, while mentoring young boys as a defensive end for the Baltimore Ravens, I saw firsthand that my childhood experience was not unique: Many children have endured trauma that impacts their emotional well-being and, in turn, their behavior at home and in school. Kids who have been in a serious accident, like I was, or who have suffered the loss of a parent, economic hardship, or illness or violence at home carry those experiences into their classrooms. These students often struggle to follow rules and are prone to outbursts when triggered. These are not bad kids, but they might act out or hurt others because they themselves are hurting and lack the ability to process that pain.

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We have powerful tools for supporting positive behavior among children who have suffered trauma and others who, for various reasons, struggle to regulate their emotions or resolve conflict appropriately. Trauma-informed practices address the impact of trauma through access to comprehensive mental and behavioral health services, positive and non-exclusionary discipline, and shared knowledge among staff about how to work with children who bring heavy emotional burdens to school.

When schools implement a trauma-informed approach, they see decreases in student behavior crises and disciplinary referrals, becoming “calmer” and “safer.” Social-emotional curriculum teaches young people how to moderate their feelings and behaviors, treating good character not as an inborn trait but as a skill to acquire and hone. Students who participate in tested social-emotional learning programs experience less distress and engage in less violent conduct in the short term and long term.

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Finally, restorative approaches develop relationships among students and staff to minimize conflict and repair harm if it does occur. Schools that comprehensively adopt restorative approaches see improvements in student behavior and rely less on suspension and similar responses. When we deploy these and other supports, we make schools safer — not just for individual kids who are fighting inner demons, but for their classmates and teachers as well.

Maryland has not invested adequately in student and school safety measures and instead has poured money into a strategy we know does not work: school policing. Implementation of the above strategies depends on counselors, social workers, psychologists, nurses, mental health professionals, restorative approaches practitioners, and community school coordinators, but we fall short as a state on recommended staffing levels across these positions. At the same time, we spend more than $10 million per year in state revenues and substantially more in local dollars to station sworn law enforcement in schools in every district — despite the fact that police have failed to make schools safer.

Studies have shown, repeatedly, that putting police in schools does not prevent mass shootings or reduce other types of school violence. Instead, police presence criminalizes children for being children — doubling the likelihood that a young person will face arrest for a run-of-the-mill fistfight and quintupling the risk of arrest for “disorderly conduct.” Black kids bear the brunt of this harm, being more likely to attend schools with officers and to be perceived as culpable when they engage in the same behaviors as white peers. That’s why in Maryland, 56% of school-based arrests target Black students, even though they are only about a third of the student population.

Our national awakening to the problem of over-policing, particularly of Black youth, presents an opportunity to correct course. Beginning this summer, policymakers in an increasing number of jurisdictions around the country have removed police from schools and reallocated funds toward student mental health, behavioral health, and wrap-around services.

The movement has also grown in Maryland: Students, parents, and community leaders in Prince George’s County, Montgomery County, Howard County and beyond have called on education leaders to replace school police with professionals who can support students' development without arresting, handcuffing and jailing them. Lawmakers should listen closely as they develop their recommendations for police reform this fall and enact corresponding legislation in the winter. To truly make schools safe for all students, Maryland must embrace a paradigm shift from policing its classrooms and hallways and invest in strategies that work.

Adalius Thomas (info@players-coalition.org) is a former All-Pro linebacker and Players Coalition Advocate.

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