It’s a difficult time for policing in the UK. Handling the unusual circumstances surrounding both the Sarah Everard tragedy and subsequent police actions, were always going to be a challenge for the Metropolitan force. The Clapham Common inquiry has concluded, “nothing to see here, move along”, but the images of what happened that evening will linger.

The police also came under attack, literally, in Bristol when dealing with protests against The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, parts of which will apply in Scotland. There are still significant questions around events surrounding the death of Sheku Bayoh in Fife. The death of George Floyd, the Black Lives Matter movement and the trial of the officer charged with responsibility for Floyd’s death, reverberate far beyond Minneapolis. They have all contributed to questioning of police impartiality, erosion of trust and possibly undermining Robert Peel’s fundamental principle of policing by consent.

Unsurprisingly, police involvement in other areas of everyday life such as schools, has come under renewed scrutiny. Opposition to police officers in schools is nothing new, but has been revived by national and international events. Campaigners warn that having officers in schools exposes pupils to the risk of being “criminalised” within what should be a “safe haven”. Manchester-based No Police in Schools describes itself as “a community campaign led by Kids of Colour and the Northern Police Monitoring Project”. It recently published Decriminalise the Classroom, a report highly critical of the widespread deployment in England of Safer Schools Officers (SSO), particularly in schools with large numbers of black and minority ethnic youngsters.

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Writing in the Guardian newspaper, one of the authors, Manchester University academic Dr Remi Joseph-Salisbury, claimed the presence of SSOs sends out the message, “what is expected of young people is not 'academic success' but criminality”. Dr Joseph-Salisbury also recounts his own experience as a 17-year-old caught stealing from the school canteen. His misdemeanour was dealt with by the headteacher, but believes a youngster in a similar position today would run the risk of being “criminalised”. I have my doubts. As a former headteacher, I don’t think for a minute my first instinct would have been to involve the police, even if there was an officer next door.

There have been police officers in Scottish schools as far back as 2002. The scheme was trialled in Aberdeen, coincidentally in the school serving the area where I grew up. From the outset there was a lack of clarity about their role and place, reflected in the variety of titles, including Community Police Officer, School Link Officer and Campus Police Officer. It was never entirely clear how the officers were selected. It’s unlikely to have been a sought-after posting, especially for officers wishing to climb the career ladder. Consequently, some were inadequately trained and unsuited to working with young people. To be fair, you could say the same about a few teachers I worked with.

In 2010, the Scottish Government commissioned Ipsos MORI to carry out an independent evaluation of campus officers in schools. The report suggested that, despite the absence of standard job descriptions and sketchy training, campus officers were generally perceived positively. That largely chimes with my own experience with a “campus cop” who was a legend in the school and wider community. He knew the youngsters’ parents and grandparents and was known simply as Brian the Bobby or by his initials. Far from criminalising youngsters, he did more than anyone to ensure that didn’t happen. More than 20 years later, I still meet former pupils who say he was the biggest positive influence in their young lives.

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It’s to be expected in the current climate and fuelled by allegations of institutionalised racism, the place of the campus police officer is again being questioned. In Scotland, the Anti-Racist Educator, which describes itself as a “collective of educational stakeholders”, has been particularly critical. Its blog suggests that at a time of unfairly targeted stop and search, George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, the presence of police officers can turn classrooms into “places of threat and surveillance”. Teachers’ union the EIS has questioned the use of education budgets including Public Equity funding, to partly pay the salaries of Scotland’s 87 campus officers.

The presence and visibility of campus police officers make them an easy but symbolic target for campaigners. It can be argued however, that we have never been more in need of bridge building, not bridge removal. By removing school-based officers, a valuable albeit imperfect, line of communication would be lost. Police and youngsters would be further distanced, making mutual understanding and respect even more unlikely. Things must have changed since my time if present-day teenagers feel “intimidated and oppressed” by the presence of a single police officer. Not so long ago there was a fatal stabbing in a school near me. Would that boy be alive today had there been a campus cop with his/her ear to the ground or tipped off that a pupil was carrying a knife?

Most of our educational problems including the attainment gap, truancy and poor behaviour are down to social issues. Low expectations, poverty and poor housing, not campus police are the real barrier to equal opportunities and social justice. Whether the funding could be better spent, for example employing more social workers, is a different matter altogether. It might also be time to review the criteria for allocating campus officers to avoid stigmatising certain schools and areas. Afterall, the fatal stabbing mentioned earlier, occurred in a school in the proverbial leafy suburb. In the meantime, let’s not politicise campus officers who are doing their best for youngsters and their communities.

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