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As School Reopens, Don’t Forget The Hidden Victims Of Police Violence: Children

September 29, 2020

By Dr. Renée Boynton-Jarrett, Marisha L. Humphries and Stephanie M. Curenton


The original version of this article by was published on WBUR on August 31, 2020 and can be accessed here. This post has been cross-posted with permission by the authors.

When our children return to school this fall, they will be met with new and difficult challenges. We are asking them to navigate their education in a world seized by a relentless pandemic. But so many of our students will have an additional, often less visible, burden to bear: the police violence they have seen, heard and experienced this spring and summer.

We have endlessly debated whether reopening schools during COVID is safe for our children’s physical health but we have overlooked a clear and present danger to their emotional health. Trauma from police violence, even if witnessed through online media, can have severe and lasting effects on our children’s abilities to learn and grow. And until we take steps to mitigate these effects — to change the way law enforcement interacts with our communities — we are not doing enough to protect the health and wellbeing of our children.


Black children deal with high rates of exposure to police violence wherever they live, learn and play. Last week, three young boys (ages 3, 5 and 8) witnessed their unarmed father, Jacob Blake, get shot seven times by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police. Encounters with law enforcement are a leading cause of death for Black boys and men: They suffer a lifetime risk of 1 in 1,000 of being killed by police. This is 250 percent higher than the equivalent statistic for whites. Children who have died at the hands of police include 14-year-old Tamir Rice and 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones.


When interacting with law enforcement, Black children are more likely to experience discriminatory treatment and excessive force by Taser, gunpoint or physical assault. Black children with learning differences, developmental delays or behavioral or mental health challenges are more likely to bear harsh discipline, be restrained or even be handcuffed, rather than receive appropriate therapy. Race-based patterns of violence like these serve to demonstrate the way that Black children are systemically perceived as a threat, and how that perception often undermines the protections they deserve — and are legally owed -- as children.


Black youth, however, don’t need to be direct victims of violence by law enforcement to experience its negative impacts. Black youth who witness police violence in person — or even through online media — often express elevated symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And Black students who live within a half-mile of a police killing are more likely to experience a decline in GPA and a lapse in school attendance following the event. These children also report feeling less safe in their neighborhoods.


Both direct contact with police and increased neighborhood policing have been shown to correlate with long-term detrimental effects including poor mental and physical health, as well as lower school performance, lower cognitive functioning, and lower self-esteem. Imagine how confused and scared 8-year-old