An Open Letter From a Principal to the Police

Dear Police Officers,

In case you haven’t taken the time to notice, our students are amazing. Not a little amazing either. Very amazing. They are awesome!

I wanted to tell you that, but I am also writing out of some deep and ongoing frustrations-some from national incidents, some local. All problematic and deeply concerning.

Last year, a female officer put one of my 7th graders in handcuffs and put her in the back of her squad car. When I got the call, I was extremely concerned. When I found out it was because the twelve-year old “got smart” I was livid. To me, that is code for something with a sinister and racist history. When confronted, she said, “Tell my Captain! I don’t want to work with these bad ass kids anyway!”

Officer, that’s 90% of the problem. The other 10% of the problem is that your Captain sent you here anyway.

Today, police officers on dirt bikes, donning helmets and sunglasses, confronted my Assistant Principal of Culture because she had the audacity to tell the police that riding their dirt bikes on the sidewalk teeming with students was dangerous, counterproductive, and aggressive.

That pissed them off. How dare she?!

When another Assistant Principal told the officers that their actions would never occur at a school’s dismissal in her affluent neighborhood, it gave them pause (but, not for long). They knew she was right.

History and the present run together because a Black girl, a student, was told not to get uppity. Coded, yet clear, language directed towards a Black girl. A police officer became aggressive with me because I “eyeballed an officer.” These sound eerily similar to the Black Codes that were used to terrorize Black communities.

In both instances, the officers, in their distorted minds, had to do these things in order to keep our community “safe.” That means our community continues to be targeted as a hostile enemy territory to oversee, control, and intimidate. Schools are not inviolate when it comes to this sort of police aggression.

Years ago, during my first year as a principal at Shaw Middle School in southwest Philly, I left the building one evening after an exhausting day. A police officer pulled me over. Although I knew I didn’t do anything, it was still unnerving. It was after 8:00 pm, in the winter. Dark, cold, poor street lighting, and two officers on both sides of my car. Not a good (or safe) situation for any Black man in America.

Asking what precipitated the stop, only got the police officer riled up. From the cop’s perspective, I was questioning authority. Forget that he was assaulting my humanity. When he barked for me to get out of the car, I complied, showed no aggression, and continued to politely insist for answers.

Although I would later receive a letter from Internal Affairs stating that the officer was reprimanded for my unlawful arrest, it did little to increase my confidence in the police departments’ collective ability to serve as problem solvers, de-escalators, or invested community members.

Today, the scene at our students’ dismissal was dangerous-and not because of anything our students were doing. Officers on dirt bikes speeding on the sidewalk, aggressively barking orders to kids who were doing nothing but catching up with their friends and watch officers act crazy, made no sense. When school staff asked the officers not to do that, the officers became openly hostile. Aggressive even, “Don’t look my partner up and down.”

Our school staff want our students and the community to be safe. You claim to want the same thing. There are ways that you can partner with us, but you need to be open to feedback and a real partnership. Our students deal with enough bullies. They don’t need bullies with badges to join the fray.

When my own Assistant Principal of Culture tells you that you are making our students and staff feel unsafe, be curious about how to improve your performance, not how to protect your fragile, yet inflated egos. When we tell you that you are being disrespectful to our children, don’t counter with, “Well, they are disrespectful to our authority.”

@Stimyabby captured our sentiments, and those of our students, perfectly.

I am all about trying to find solutions, so here are some suggestions for the police who work in the vicinity of schools (or anywhere else):

  • Don’t make assumptions about what school communities need. It is not a war zone. We don’t want “shock and awe” anywhere, let alone on 53rd and Media Street. Shock and awe in communities is nothing short of terrorism.
  • If you are assigned to support school dismissals, meet with school staff to see what their dismissal deployment is and what their safety needs are. By partnering and being open to the school’s actual needs, a safe corridor can be established. Don’t undermine the safe corridor with your own actions.
  • Recognize that many Black youth don’t trust police officers for good reasons. Instead of using that to create more hostility, work with school staff to see how you can build relationships with students. Staff will know. Look for ways to build bridges. Don’t seek ways to enlarge the chasm.
  • Be proactive in getting to know the population you were hired to serve. Be respectful, curious, and humble. Be driven by service – not by the desire to intimidate, dominate, and overpower.
  • Talk and interact with our students in the same manner you would want someone interacting with your own daughters and sons-regardless if they have “smart mouths.” You’re the adult. You’re the professional. Have more tools in your toolkit besides weapons and aggression. If you feel underwhelmed by the training you have had so far, seek out help. That’s what professionals do.
  • Come to the job with a protect and serve mindset, not a mindset to threaten and intimidate.
  • Lastly, people often want more officers to look like the communities they are supposed to serve. I haven’t always found that to be the helpful. My experience has been that Black cops were often worse-today was no exception. Too often, the Black police officer acts like the de facto Black plantation overseer. But, I am open. Perhaps, it will help the relationships that our youth have with the officers who patrol our community.

If authentic “serve and protect” police can partner with authentic “serve and educate” school-based staff, positive things just might happen for all of us.

In the meantime, get to know our students. They are amazing.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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2 Comments

  • Great article! The solutions that you outlined for bridging the gap between the schools and local police authority were authentic and a happy medium for developing a proactive and transparent relationship.

  • Principle El-Mekki
    Thank you for writing this letter. It is profound and worthy to be read by many, even though, my children are adults now, I still know children whose parents would love to hear about this article, that I will share. My only hope is that the parents understand just how important their children really are. Who would’ve known, that just days before reading this article, another police officer was shot, but she is alive in the hospital. My only concern are, where are all the activist now? Since our lives matter, where they now. There are two sides of a coin, I wrote this “corny” poem; “Black on Black Crime” “You must be out of your mind, we don’t stand up even when it’s one of mines. When it’s white on black crime, that’s when we’ll stand in lie, It’s not right, but are you blind? We call it a crime, when it’s one of mine. You’ll march and stand in line, But you don’t do the same, when its black on black crime. You wonder why they teat us like flies, how they can just swat us when we walk by. You’re too busy to see the lie, and then you wonder why we die.”

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