/ 22 September 2023

Reimagining school safety in South Africa

Phoenix High School Pupils (1)
There is little evidence to suggest that school policing increases school safety.

The police K9 unit arrives at a school, and sniffer dogs search for illegal substances in learners’ bags in the classroom. At another school, learners stand against the wall with their arms stretched out while law enforcement officers conduct personal searches. These scenes are becoming more common in schools in South Africa’s urban townships. They highlight the global expansion of the military-industrial complex into the education sphere, as well as changing approaches to poverty and inequality.

On the one hand, there is a trend towards abandonment of schools, the withdrawal of state support and other welfarist approaches. On the other hand, there is a shift towards militarisation, securitisation and containment. This year, Western Cape education MEC David Maynier announced a budget of R76.1 million for school safety. A portion of these funds will be used to expand the school resource officer programme, bringing the total number of deployed officers in schools to 46 in 2023 and to 83 in the next two years. This budget allocation shows a commitment to policing schools, mirroring similar initiatives such as Gauteng’s Operation Kgutla Molao and Adopt-a-Cop programmes.

Given this trajectory, it is in the public interest to examine the history and state of policing in South Africa, as well as the global history of school policing to help determine whether the trajectory is suitable and in the long-term interest of children.

Policing in South Africa

The history of policing in South Africa has its origins in the Dutch Watch and the Cape Constabulary, all within a broader history of colonial conquest. The main purpose of these policing forces was to exert control over the indigenous population. During the apartheid era, state policing continued its oppressive role in suppressing resistance.

In democratic South Africa, recent reports from the Independent Police Investigative Directorate show a troubling trend of police violence. In 2022 alone, 5 295 cases were investigated against police and metro officers, including 233 deaths in police custody. Black people continue to disproportionately experience this police violence.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, incidents such as the killing of Collins Khosa in South Africa by soldiers coincided with the killing of George Floyd in the United States by a police officer. Bulelani Qolani was dragged naked out of his home in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, by Anti-Land Invasion officers. According to a report by Africa Is a Country, “South African police kill on average slightly less than two and a half times as many people as American police and roughly eight and a half times as many people as Canadian police do.”

Given this intertwining history of policing, racism and violence, along with South Africa’s troubling policing track record, it is understandable that school policing is a concern. 

School resource officer model

The South African school resource officer (SRO) model is based on the United States National Association of School Resource Officers (Nasro) model, an organisation that has also been involved in training in South Africa. The use of such officers in the US was first documented in Flint, Michigan, in the 1950s, coinciding with the racial integration of schools. The second documented introduction of SROs took place in 1966 in Tucson, Arizona, after the student-led Chicano Freedom movement and student walkout. The introduction of school resource officers in US schools has been shown to have “inadvertently increased the likelihood of student contact with the juvenile justice system, and promoted the school-to-prison pipeline”, according to an article in ERIC, an education database. According to Connecticut Voices For Children, for instance, “the risk of arrest was over five times higher [for black and Latino students] in schools with SROs than in schools without SROs.” 

In the United Kingdom, school safety officers (SSOs) have demonstrated similar patterns of institutionalised racism. Last year, for example, in Hackney, a girl was strip-searched by two SSOs and made to “remove her clothing, underwear and a sanitary pad, spread her buttocks and cough”. The Runnymede Trust’s report, Overpoliced and Underprotected: The Road to Safer Schools, suggests that black boys have been the target of 58% of strip searches by metropolitan police from 2018 to 2020. 

In South Africa, the pilot intervention schools are mostly located in working-class areas serving primarily black families. The rationale behind this is that these schools are in areas identified as high risk. But what are these communities at risk of, and why? Does increased policing and surveillance effectively address the underlying causes of poverty and inequality? Or is this just an element added to the aggressive implementation of neoliberal reforms including budget cuts and privatisation of public services? 

The various disciplinary approaches applied in different contexts — white, black, rich, and poor — should also be considered. Disciplinary approaches range from counselling and therapy,to criminalisation, expulsion or institutionalisation at youth care centres. Why are more punitive disciplinary approaches deemed appropriate for black youth? 

Breeding stigma, profit and a culture of suspicion

The introduction of school police as well as other surveillance measures such as CCTV cameras, carries the risk of stigmatising the school and the learners. Such measures can portray them as more dangerous and violent than those without policing. Moreover, it can lead to the setting of low expectations where youth are locked into “circuits of exclusion”.

Imogen Tyler, a sociology professor at Lancaster University, extends this concern of stigmatisation by looking at it in the context of a neoliberal political economy marked by high unemployment rates, and the labelling of certain people as disposable. These populations are effectively excluded from meaningful participation in the economy. She suggests that the stigmatisation of these disposable groups serves a further purpose: creating new markets focused on managing these disposable people. 

This leads to a critical question: does the South African SRO programme, together with a law on the establishment of intervention facilities and donor-funded schools, lay the groundwork for an infrastructure that may, in the long run, be commandeered by private interests to profit from the criminalisation of youth? This scenario is what is referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline”.

Do school police make schools safer?

There is little evidence to suggest that school policing increases school safety. While it may increase the perception of safety for some students, there are clear patterns that schools with SROs tend to employ exclusionary disciplinary practices. There is also evidence of racialised patterns of discipline. This suggests the harm caused by school policing outweighs potential benefits. 

A more progressive, restorative and forward-looking approach may involve reallocating funding from the SRO programme to initiatives that can de-escalate school violence. Such initiatives can address the longstanding concerns voiced by teachers, parents, learners and activists about the general deficiencies in public schooling. These deficiencies lead to broken rhythms of learning and render the conditions of schooling untenable: overcrowded classrooms, understaffed teaching teams, inadequate and ailing infrastructure, unsanitary and undignified ablution facilities, as well as unpleasant and unsafe recreation facilities.

It may be worth considering the employment of additional qualified support staff such as school counsellors or psychologists. These professionals are better equipped to support young people and can contribute to creating a more nurturing school environment.

Every child should have access to an education that is safe and free from violence, where effective learning is possible. But current interventions aimed at reducing violence in schools such as the introduction of law enforcement officers subvert this objective. They introduce a militarised approach to school discipline and stigmatise young people, particularly socially excluded youth and people of colour. These groups invariably become the targets of the very violence that these interventions supposedly counteract. 

Ashley Visagie is PhD candidate at University of Cape Town, School of Education supported by the Canon Collins Trust. He is a co-founder of the youth organisation, Bottomup. He is part of a research project investigating emerging state responses to school safety and violence, as part of the Political Economy of Education Network, Africa Hub.