Police in schools – for broken windows or buying shares?

The police have always been involved in schools as irregular visitors for one reason or another.

In my time teaching they have taken part in driving instruction, talked to an assembly about student safety on their way to and from school after a local flasher was sighted and given talks about drugs and crime.

All these are valid, sensible reasons for police to be in schools but there is now a very dangerous proposal to station police permanently in ten secondary schools in South Auckland. It’s a plan fraught with problems and should be abandoned.

The police say they want to be permanently in schools to gain the trust and confidence of students and hear from them about youth gangs, youth crime and anti-social activity generally associated with teenagers.

Most of the schools themselves are decile one, meaning their students come from families whose incomes are in the lowest 10% of incomes across New Zealand. These are called “troubled areas” with “troubled teens” as though the problem lies within these schools and within these communities. It doesn’t. It lies instead at the heart of the economic policies of successive governments.

We know from eight years of Labour that the much needed policy changes won’t come from Helen Clark and have even less chance of emerging from the “smiling assassin” John Key.

However instead of confronting the problem at the top of the cliff we continue to build a large infrastructure at the bottom. Each one of us knows that interventions like this don’t address the real problems but presumably make enough of us feel like we care or that we are doing something meaningful. Putting police in schools is a delusional activity. We may just as well chase after rainbows.

Setting aside for a moment the policy issue, what are the problems with the proposal?

The police desire to build trust and confidence in teenagers is shorthand for getting kids to nark on their friends and families.

This strategy has the potential to create much greater social problems for the very people it is trying to help. In middle-class areas parents would insist they are present when police interview their children for any reason. This legal right will be easily side-stepped in the playground where an innocent conversation with a fellow student or police officer could turn into family chaos or social tragedy for the students.

Schools are educational institutions and must be uncompromising in their focus on lifting student achievement. This is most especially true for schools in low-income areas where the long tail of underachievement is most obvious. Police in a school are just another distraction from this critical job. Schools are not there to provide captive audiences of children informing on their friends and families.

There is an important step all our schools could take to discourage anti-social behaviour by students and help build healthy communities. It’s called civics education.

It used to be a part of the teaching in our schools but has become lost as curricula have become more functional and less encouraging of critical thinking.

Civics education is education about our society and its institutions. It’s education about our democracy – how it works and how it might be improved; the history of struggle for people to get the vote; why we have MMP instead of first past the post. It would also examine our social and economic structures and encourage discussion about where they are failing and what policies might bring positive change. It would look at the ideas of people such as Adam Smith and Karl Marx while comparing and contrasting capitalism and socialism.

From all this comes the understanding that we are all interdependent human beings and why anti-social behaviour can be so destructive. The goal would be informed discussion where students see their roles as active participants in a civil society rather than passive, disconnected consumers.

It has the potential to benefit the whole community and encourage students to take greater responsibility within their communities for the benefit of everyone. It will be opposed by some for this very reason. They are doing well with things as they are.

In their list of ten South Auckland schools the police have left out the wealthiest private school in the country – Kings College in Otahuhu. One would have thought with the prevalence of corporate fraud and professional dishonesty in the business world, made evident by recent finance and property company crashes, the police would have been very keen to station officers permanently here as well.

Crime for some starts with broken windows, for others it starts with buying shares.