Over the weekend a protest to defund the Albuquerque Public Schools Police Department led by Fight For Our Lives, a local youth-led organization that campaigns for school safety and racial justice, met at the APS Headquarters and marched through Uptown. Several other local organizations including The Red Nation and Pueblo Action Alliance supported the protest and spoke on the issue of police in public schools. Of the estimated 200 protestors present, many were students or parents of students. The two-hour protest was peaceful and involved no direct contact with law enforcement, though there were many police present, both watching the ground in patrol cars and circling the air in a helicopter.
The protestors were demanding immediate defunding and abolishment of the APS Police to reallocate funds to several other initiatives, including conducting equity audits of schools with the biggest racial disparities and providing anti-racism classes for all students and teachers. Their concern was not only with use of excessive force against students, but also with the educational environment created by the mere presence of armed officers on school campuses. The budget for the APS Police Department is $6.5 million for fiscal year 2020.
The presence of police in schools has long been criticized, but the current national discussion about over policing—as well as several high-profile instances of excessive force being used against students, including one in Farmington, NM last year when a police officer wrestled a Black 11-year-old student to the ground, giving her a concussion—has brought the issue to a head in many places.
Earlier this year the Denver, CO school board voted unanimously to cut its contract with the Denver Police Department, stating in its resolution that, “From the 2014-15 school year through the 2018-19 school year, DPS students were ticketed or arrested at school by police officers at least 4,540 times, with the vast majority being Black or Latinx students between the ages of 10 and 15, thereby introducing them to the criminal justice system and often inflicting institutional trauma.”
Rather than having a contract with the Albuquerque Police Department or any other local law enforcement agency, the APS Police Department is a separate entity that gets its funding from APS and has its commission with Bernalillo County. The stated mission of the APSPD is to “create and maintain a safe and secure educational climate for all students and staff members.” The department has its own additional training programs focused specifically on working with children and young adults.
“We really push restorative justice programs,” says Chief of School Police Steve Gallegos. “Last year we arrested a total of seven kids. [And those were all because] we found 11 guns on campus … but something like 99.9 percent of the time we don’t arrest.
“The goal is really to keep kids out of the juvenile system. I don’t think demonstrators quite understand what we really do. We work closely with the Juvenile Probation Officers and we rely on restorative justice practices. It doesn’t always work—sometimes you work and work with the kid and it still doesn’t work; but for the most part it does.”
Jonathan Juarez of FFOL brought up that it’s not just about arrests, but about expulsions and suspensions, too—some of which are facilitated by the APSPD for infractions of school code or illegal activity that occurs outside of school.
“If APS truly practices restorative justice, why are they holding [back] the demographic reports of who they’re expelling and who they’re suspending? The last time the public saw those reports there was such a deep racial disparity that they’ve since stopped releasing that information.”
Racially disparate rates of graduation are also cause for concern in New Mexico, where 73.3 percent of English language learner students and 69.6 percent of Native American students graduate from high school—well behind the national average graduation rate of 85.3 percent, according to a report from the Public Education Department last year.
Zoey Craft, another organizer with Fight For Our Lives who led the protest, spoke about her own experience with APSPD.
“I was in my senior year at La Cueva High School. I was about three weeks from graduation. The administration, in coordination with APS Police, tried to kick me and several of my friends out of school three weeks to graduation due to hearing about a party that took place over six months before.” Although Craft is Asian American and often passes for white, she said that she saw the Black students at her school disproportionally subject to suspension and expulsion, as well as arrest.
Perhaps the biggest reason police presence increased in US schools in the ’00s is to help prevent or mitigate school shootings. After the Columbine High School shooting of 1999, parents of students became justifiably concerned over the continued safety of their children in school settings.
Juarez addressed this concern in a speech at the ABQ Uptown shopping center, the midpoint of the march. “I want to talk about what happened in Parkland, because I’ve heard a couple of times today, ‘In the era of mass school shootings, who are we going to call?’ I want to remind you that Marjory Stoneman Douglas [High School] had four armed officers on campus when Nicholas Cruz massacred students inside. All four of them stood by, they stood outside while he massacred students inside. And today, all four of them are facing legal penalties for their inaction. Armed officers have almost never intervened in a school shooting.”
The Fight For Our Lives organizers emphasized the importance of introducing more counselors and mental health resources into schools, as well as mediation and de-escalation training for staff to address the underlying issues that lead to school shootings. “These are all programs that we've seen reduce the criminalization of our communities and actually make our kids safer,” said Craft.