A London family has launched legal action over the role of police officers in schools, amid concerns that their presence could have disproportionately negative consequences for black and minority ethnic groups.
Many schools in the capital and across the country have police officers attached to them for the safety and security of pupils and staff. In some cases, officers are permanently based at the school to intervene in the early stages of any criminal or disorderly behaviour and forge good relationships between the school and police.
The legal action has been brought against the Metropolitan police on behalf of the family of a 14-year-old boy, who is black and has autism. The boy was investigated by the Crown Prosecution Service after he got into a verbal altercation with a member of staff at his school.
While the family is not challenging the principle of deploying police officers in schools, its lawyers say the case raises significant concerns over the failure by police to monitor, assess and understand the implications of the practice in terms of equality.
They argue the Met has failed to comply with the public sector equality duty while deploying officers in schools as part of its safer schools partnerships. The high court has granted permission for a judicial review of the case, and a substantive hearing is expected later this year.
There is also a broader concern that incidents which should be a school matter, such as sanctions imposed by a headteacher, can too quickly escalate into a police matter when an officer is on hand, jeopardising a child’s future unnecessarily.
In the case brought against the Met, the headteacher imposed a three-day suspension as punishment for the altercation, but a member of staff involved complained directly to the school officer, triggering the investigation.
The CPS dropped the case, but the family’s lawyers say it has had a lasting effect on the boy, who has anxiety issues which have since worsened.
Dan Rosenberg, an education law expert at Simpson Millar who is representing the family, said: “Deploying police officers in schools may have benefits for students and the wider school community, and no one is disputing that, least of all our client.
“However, it was important to clarify whether the presence of police officers in schools may have disproportionately negative consequences for black and ethnic minority boys and/or children with special education needs and disabilities, causing them to be drawn into the criminal justice system unnecessarily.”
Police officers have long had good contacts with local schools, but the issue of officers being attached to schools full-time came to the fore recently after an increase in youth knife crime, particularly in the capital last year.
Mark Simmons, an assistant commissioner at the Met, told a parliamentary hearing last March that there were then 420 police officers with full-time roles in schools in the capital, and that the aim was to get the total up to just under 600 as part of an effort to combat knife crime.
Simmons, who was being questioned by MPs on the cross-party education select committee, said the aim of having more officers in schools was to develop better relationships and improve engagement between young people and the police.
Rosenberg said: “It is of obvious importance that the Met understands, monitors and addresses the equality implications of deploying police officers in schools. It simply cannot be done without the collection and analysis of relevant data.
“The Metropolitan police has not done that in relation to its use of safer schools officers, and this is what we hope will be addressed as part of the judicial review.”
A police spokesman said: “The Met is defending a judicial review claim brought in March 2020, relating to the Met’s safer schools project. It would be inappropriate to comment further while proceedings are ongoing.”