The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and George Washington University (GWU) recently hosted what has been described as the first of several meetings with youth to better understand their perspectives about police-community relations.
While many students welcomed the opportunity to express their thoughts, a group of young people who attended the MPD Youth Summit condemned it as an attempt to overshadow the work they’ve done for years to amplify youth’s unfiltered perspectives about the policing of Black children.
On Saturday, Dec. 4, the group disrupted the MPD Youth Summit, belting chants against MPD Chief Robert J. Contee III and demanding police-free schools. After Contee confronted the youth and MPD officers escorted them outside of Eastern High School in Southeast, they led a protest along East Capitol Street and passed out literature about their cause.
“MPD intended to create this space to be saviors and reach out to youth when youth have reached out for years and it’s been silent,” said a D.C. public school student who asked to be identified as Ghoul.
In the years before the pandemic, Ghoul and other affiliates of the Black Swan Academy have campaigned for police-free schools and expansion of mental health services for young people attending District public and public charter schools.
Their organizing tactics included public service announcements, forums, events in front of District schools and testimonies before the D.C. Council. All the while, they’ve maintained that MPD leadership has been unresponsive to Black Swan Academy’s concerns, particularly amid protests that erupted in the aftermath of George Floyd’s police-involved murder.
”At this point, I want MPD to know that we want our voices heard [because] we have been getting our voices heard by other people, just not the source [of the problem],” Ghoul said. “Black youth are always the first people seen as the suspect and they’re never able to explain themselves.”
A Polarizing and Multifaceted Issue
In response to Black Swan Academy’s protest, several people, including MPD officers and school security guards who stood by the entrance of Eastern, spoke among themselves and asked how young people, despite their disdain for the police, would fare in an environment without law enforcement protection.
Similar conversations have reverberated throughout ANC meetings and public forums as the District grapples with more than 200 homicides recorded this year. While some have called for greater police presence, legislators and others who have spoken with Black Swan Academy members have advanced more holistic solutions.
Last summer, the D.C. State Board of Education passed a resolution in support of police-free schools. D.C. Council also unanimously supported the phasing out of MPD officers in District schools by 2025. This counted as a realization of one of the numerous recommendations brought forth by the D.C. Police Reform Commission on which Black Swan Academy Executive Director Samantha Davis sits.
Recently, council members began deliberations on the School Police Incident Oversight and Accountability Amendment Act which would require schools to collect and make available data about school-related arrests.
The MPD Youth Summit came on the heels of violent incidents and arrests of young people. On Dec. 3, Larelle Washington, a KIPP DC College Preparatory student, was shot just blocks from the charter school, near Mt. Olivet Road and West Virginia Avenue in Northeast. Days later he succumbed to his injuries.
Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia announced it levied nearly 100 charges against two D.C. teens for their alleged involvement in a string of robberies and kidnappings last year. Within that same time, police arrested two Eastern High School students, one of whom allegedly brought a ghost gun to campus and the other for his alleged involvement in the murder of a Virginia man.
During the MPD Youth Summit’s opening ceremony, Contee encouraged young people to become more collaborative as the department attempts to foster relationships with the community.
The nearly 100 students who gathered in Eastern’s auditorium learned about MPD’s partnership with GWU’s Rethinking DC Youth and Policing Program. They also heard from a retired police officer who spoke about her daughter’s gun-related death and compelled students to make more prudent choices. Students later broke into small groups and spoke to GWU undergraduate and graduate students about the state of policing in the District.
For several hours, dialogue focused on relationships with school resource officers, students’ exposure to metal detectors, anxiety about encounters with the police, feelings about law enforcement among their family members and how MPD compares to other police departments across the U.S.
Later, while protesting outside of Eastern, a District public school student known as Sai, criticized the MPD Youth Summit as a carbon copy of Black Swan Academy’s endeavor to explore the nuances of policing and youth trauma.
“As a young person working [toward] police-free schools, it feels like I’m getting gaslit,” Sai said. “Chief Contee knew about our campaign. This is an example of how adults take youth’s ideas as their own.”
A Question of How to Protect and Engage Youth
Research conducted by the D.C. Policy Center last year showed that more than 1 out of 5 D.C. youth have been exposed to neighborhood violence and other adverse childhood experiences. Policy analysts recommended the infusion of mental health services and trauma-informed care in District schools.
The D.C. Department of Behavioral Health, in partnership with community-based organizations, has since expanded its school-based mental health services to an increasing number of District public and public charter schools.
Last Friday, District officials announced an influx of $4 million in Safe Passage funds to support six community-based organizations dedicated to ensuring children safely travel to and from school. Amid robust discussions about pedestrian safety, MPD launched a program on November 29 in which seven District police officers set up shop around each District school to provide traffic safety enforcement and education during students’ morning and evening commutes.
Toward the end of the youth summit last Saturday just before the protests erupted, students had the opportunity to present what they had discussed during the breakout sessions. One young person acknowledged that his view of police changed once he stopped engaging in illegal activities. Youth also nodded in agreement with one presenter who spoke about the harmful effects of opioids.
Throughout much of the day, Contee, a DC Public Schools graduate who’s often spoken about his harsh upbringing in Ward 5’s Carver Terrace, expressed his hope that those who attended the MPD Youth Summit would take action to make their communities better and include MPD in those efforts.
“Your voices have not been heard and that stops now,” Contee said. “Oftentimes, I would say to my team that if you want to know about the problems, you get closer to the people who are closest to the pain. You have an opportunity to have your voice heard and talk about things that impact you. I want to make sure you’re not only heard but you get action.”