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Reimagining school safety in St. Louis

Students are urging public schools to stop spending millions of dollars on police and “security services”—and invest in restorative justice and other supports to promote well-being for all.  

St. Louis school protest
Students, families, and community members protest in St. Louis, calling for schools to divest from policing.  Photo: Joshua Saleem / AFSC

My spouse and I had to supply several months of bank statements during a recent home refinance process. As I turned over the statements, I couldn't help but wonder if or how the person who'd eventually review them would judge our spending habits. That insecurity stems from the truth that where we spend our money reflects our values or priorities in life. (Keep reading, this isn't a fundraising message I promise.) 

For example, if every week someone purchased from a sporting goods store and nutritional supplement company, you might assume that exercise and health were priorities in our lives. Jesus puts it this way in Luke 12:34 saying, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

If bank statements and budgets are our treasure, then what do they reveal about the hearts, values, and priorities of our municipalities and school districts?

In fiscal year 2021, the City of St. Louis spent more on policing than it did on the combined expenses of the Fire Department; Parks, Recreation and Forestry; Streets; Health and Hospitals; Human Services. In fiscal year 2020, St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) spent $6.3 million on security services—and only $3.1 million on social workers. 

What does this reveal about our priorities? Whether manifesting as the “arrest and incarcerate” approach at the municipal level or as the “suspend and expel” approach at the school district level, the punitive paradigm is clearly the priority. It is a priority even though we know we can’t punish our way out of crime or out of student misconduct. If we could, the United States would have the world’s lowest incarceration rates with cities that were the world’s safest. 

So where should our treasure be? 

It should be with our young people. A good measure of the health and well-being of a community is the health and well-being of its children. Thus, present investments to produce their flourishing must result in a future where we all thrive. However, presently there is overinvestment in militarism and policing—and not in real supports for our young people. 

Students and AFSC staff in St. Louis. Photo: Joshua Saleem/AFSC 

Instead of relying on notions of “safety” rooted in security and policing, we asked our young people how decision makers could invest in their safety and well-being. 

Last fall we launched the #RealStudentSafety Showcase, which invited youth to creatively speak about their priorities when it comes to school safety. Youth submitted pieces of art in response to the prompt “What would you do with the $6.3 million SLPS spends on security services?” 

One of the participants, Jaiden, said “If we could reallocate funds, I would focus more money towards counseling and restorative practices. So many schools don’t even have enough regular counselors and don’t even pay attention to hiring those equipped to deal with trauma. If we focused more money on building our students, we wouldn’t have to focus so much towards ‘disciplining’ them.”

Another participant, Trinity, is a member AFSC Youth Council, which is an intergenerational youth-centered space where young people come together each month to heal, build their anti-racist analysis, and organize against systems of oppression. Trinity expressed how she would use the funds schools currently spend on security and policing and “redirect the money to [her school’s] counseling department.”

Since 2012, AFSC has supporting young people in organizing and advocating school districts to make these changes. We also offer practical support to students, teachers, and administrators trying to move in the restorative direction. Our school-based work trains students to resolve conflict among their peers and has been effective in reducing the number of suspensions and expulsions in school.  

Through our work in schools, Youth Council, and organizing with the #RealStudentSafety Campaign, we are making the case with clarity that schools must divest from the harmful punitive model. Instead, we must invest in a restorative model because it reduces harm promotes overall student well-being. 

What does this restorative model look like? It looks like staffing social workers, counselors, and mentors at recommended ratios. It looks like treating restorative practices as the main entrée when it comes to responding to harm in schools and not an optional side dish. It looks like nutritional food, anti-racist curriculum, institutionalization of Black Studies, and robust arts programming at every school. School budgets should reflect these priorities that center the well-being of our young people. The Youth Council’s organizers are working to make this vision a reality.

Another young participant, Grace, says, “I wanted to help abolish [inequalities in housing and education] so I became a member of the AFSC Youth Council. Our job as AFSC Youth Council members is to spread awareness and organize events around the school-to-prison pipeline.” Members have written several op-eds related to issues they are concerned about in education. While only six months since the launch of the Youth Council, members report an increased knowledge and awareness of systemic oppression and more skills with which to organize against the school-to-prison pipeline. As Youth Council member Cailan,, puts it, no longer will decision makers be able “to pretend that [they] care for Missouri’s youth if making our schools a healthy environment is not [their] first priority.” 

Our young people are not OK. We are still discovering the variety of ways in which this pandemic has impacted our world. In schools, we’ve seen an increase in conflict and fights as most students returned to full-time in person learning this school year. We’ve also seen an increase in suspensions as students struggle to navigate the effects of nearly two years of pandemic education. 

Because budgets and school infrastructure prioritize the punishment and security model, the holistic restorative practices that can better address the root cause of what is going on with our youth are underfunded or absent. We are committed to support youth who are working to change that. It’s long past time for us to divest from the punishment paradigm—and finally invest in resources that bring genuine hope for a safe, healthier future for all our youth. 

About the Author

Joshua Saleem is a lifelong St. Louis resident and is currently the Peace Education Program Director for AFSC’s St. Louis office.  He works with high school youth developing conflict resolution, civic engagement, and community organizing skills.