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MEMO: Divesting from Policing and Investing in Green, Healthy Schools

by Seth Prins and Batul Hassan

June 2024

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It’s no secret that the US public school system is crumbling, underfunded, and understaffed. This is particularly true in the Black, brown, and working class communities that already bear the heaviest burdens of climate crisis, hyper-policing, and mass incarceration. Simply decarbonizing and modernizing the current US public education system would amount to a greener school-to-prison pipeline. Students and workers alike deserve the targeted investments in education, care, and social support needed for truly safe and healthy systems.


Policing and surveillance in public schools across the United States draws resources away from urgent climate action and fails to provide the structure and support needed in a warming world. Today, roughly 14 million students attend schools with police but no counselor, nurse, psychologist, or social worker. Since the late 1990s, a nearly 40% increase in investment in securitization at schools has employed at least 27,000 police officers in schools nationwide. In New York City, the largest US school district, there are twice as many police in schools as guidance counselors and four times as many police as social workers. This trend is driven by increasingly punitive responses to student behavior and policy failures to prevent school shootings, with focused effects on Black, brown, and working class communities. It is not surprising, then, that the number of school-based arrests increased 300-500% nationwide since the 1990s, resulting in hundreds of thousands of referrals to the legal system.


Without care professionals like nurses, counselors, and social workers at staffing ratios dictated by local school enrollment and best practices, schools risk compounding multiple levels of harm and being unprepared to respond to student and worker exposure to climate harms. Today's status quo instead directs public dollars to policing and surveillance that fuels the school-to-prison pipeline and exposes more students to the atrocities of the US mass incarceration crisis – an unnatural disaster site of intensifying climate crisis and environmental injustices. The United States already incarcerates its residents at a rate and number higher than any other country in the world: at least 1.9 million people across facility types, with Black men facing disproportionately the highest rates of incarceration. Another 3.7 million people are on probation or parole, being supervised in the community.


The policy choice to prioritize policing and punishment over kids’ health, development, and safety through the climate crisis has profound consequences over the life course. It is especially alarming given that we are in the midst of an adolescent mental health crisis, with unprecedented increases in adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts over the past decade and a half. In the largest survey of climate anxiety in young people ever conducted, children expressed unprecedented levels of anxiety and psychological distress related to the climate and environmental crises. About 75% of participants agreed that “the future is frightening,” 45% said they experienced climate-related anxiety to a degree that affected their daily lives, and young people reported feelings of betrayal as more prominent than those of reassurance when asked about governmental responses to climate crisis.


Adolescence is a critical developmental period, particularly for mental health. During this age, schools are the place where kids spend the majority of their time outside their homes. And while most adolescents who need mental health services never receive them, of the small portion who do, a third access those services only at school; they are disproportionately Black and low-income.


Schools are thus a crucial public health intervention target -- especially in a climate emergency. From mental health services to shelter sites during disasters to school-to-career training for green jobs and updated climate curricula, schools have the potential to serve as community hubs of resilience, care, support, and services that are equipped to offer a range of experiences to prepare students for their future lives in a warming world. To make the most of this potential, society must also reconsider our approach to models of justice as students themselves graduate to take on the tasks of full decarbonization and a just transition off of fossil fuels. In the face of increasing climate catastrophes, which will disproportionately impact the poor and working classes, the next generation will need more productive and equitable ways to prevent and address harm, rather than the reductionist punitive models that continue to fail public schools and communities.


In this memo, we summarize research and practice that connects the dots between proposals for a Green New Deal for K-12 Public Schools and ending the school-to-prison pipeline. We argue that Green New Deal for Public Schools agendas must embrace divest-invest strategies for ending the school-to-prison pipeline and recognizing that kids’ social, emotional, and intellectual well-being is a core element of building a just and equitable green future. 

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