When our children return to school this fall, they will be met with new and difficult challenges. We are asking them to navigate their education in a world seized by a relentless pandemic. But so many of our students will have an additional, often less visible, burden to bear: the police violence they have seen, heard and experienced this spring and summer.
We have endlessly debated whether reopening schools during COVID is safe for our children’s physical health but we have overlooked a clear and present danger to their emotional health. Trauma from police violence, even if witnessed through online media, can have severe and lasting effects on our children’s abilities to learn and grow. And until we take steps to mitigate these effects — to change the way law enforcement interacts with our communities — we are not doing enough to protect the health and wellbeing of our children.
Black children deal with high rates of exposure to police violence wherever they live, learn and play. Last week, three young boys (ages 3, 5 and 8) witnessed their unarmed father, Jacob Blake, get shot seven times by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police. Encounters with law enforcement are a leading cause of death for Black boys and men: They suffer a lifetime risk of 1 in 1,000 of being killed by police. This is 250 percent higher than the equivalent statistic for whites. Children who have died at the hands of police include 14-year-old Tamir Rice and 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones.
When interacting with law enforcement, Black children are more likely to experience discriminatory treatment and excessive force by Taser, gunpoint or physical assault. Black children with learning differences, developmental delays or behavioral or mental health challenges are more likely to bear harsh discipline, be restrained or even be handcuffed, rather than receive appropriate therapy. Race-based patterns of violence like these serve to demonstrate the way that Black children are systemically perceived as a threat, and how that perception often undermines the protections they deserve — and are legally owed -- as children.
Black youth, however, don’t need to be direct victims of violence by law enforcement to experience its negative impacts. Black youth who witness police violence in person — or even through online media — often express elevated symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. And Black students who live within a half-mile of a police killing are more likely to experience a decline in GPA and a lapse in school attendance following the event. These children also report feeling less safe in their neighborhoods.
Both direct contact with police and increased neighborhood policing have been shown to correlate with long-term detrimental effects including poor mental and physical health, as well as lower school performance, lower cognitive functioning, and lower self-esteem. Imagine how confused and scared 8-year-old Zion must have felt when one minute he was playing video games with his aunt, Atatiana Jefferson, and the next minute, he was witnessing an Arlington, Texas police officer shoot her dead in her own home.
Young children are especially vulnerable to these negative effects because they have yet to develop the sophisticated language and cognitive insight required to express the complex emotions that often accompany traumatic experiences. So it can be difficult, for example, for them to make sense of how police officers, who are supposed to represent safety and protection, can be harming them and their families. It should come as no surprise that Black children are more likely to view the police as untrustworthy.
Science tells us that children exposed to pervasive adversities in their homes and neighborhoods, also known as toxic stressors, are at greater risk of health and learning difficulties. We now know so much about the long shadow cast by childhood adversities, but we do very little to address the role of systemic racism, specifically when expressed as police violence, as a major source of such adversities.
There is an abundance of evidence demonstrating the ways in which our law enforcement system targets Black children, along with their caregivers and neighborhoods, at a disproportionately high rate. The perception of Black children as a threat too often supersedes our states' legal obligation to safeguard children from abuse.
And in such a system, racial violence can never be brought to justice. In such a system, police violence will remain a traumatizing childhood adversity for too many Black children. If Black children cannot jog or play in the park or enter a store without fear of violence, they will continue to experience trauma and its negative impacts. Their happiness and experience of wellbeing will continue to be denied.
Childhood trauma at the hands of law enforcement misconduct will not just disappear. Immediate actions can be and must be taken. We must fund mental health services for children who have suffered trauma due to police violence. We must improve police training to help foster a deeper understanding within law enforcement of the potentially traumatizing impact of their actions on children. States must require that reporting of law enforcement encounters with the public be disaggregated by age and race/ethnicity. And then they must use that information to develop data-driven interventions to change policing practices. We must increase accountability by reforming police union contracts. We must eliminate language criminalizing children from public institutions including the criminal justice system, and law enforcement. And we must support Youth-Police Dialogues so that we can rebuild community trust, listen to the voices of children on how police violence impacts their lives, and engage them in designing new systems.
As we prepare to safely welcome students back to school this fall, let us not forget these aspects of their emotional and physical safety. Our collective inaction despite overwhelming evidence is as damaging to our children’s health as any physical illness. Addressing biases that frame our perceptions of culpability and pain is the first step in building a new social contract to safeguard child wellbeing. Until we eliminate structural racism and equitably enforce child protection laws, we cannot truly invest in the promise, potential and dignity of Black children.
Dr. Renée Boynton-Jarrett is a pediatrician, social epidemiologist and director of the Boston Medical Center Vital Village Network. She is also an associate professor of pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine. Marisha L. Humphries, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical child psychologist and associate professor at the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Stephanie M. Curenton, Ph.D., is a developmental and community psychologist, an associate professor at Boston University and executive director of the Center on Early Education and Development.
The authors are members of the RISER Network, a group of scholars examining issues of health equity, wellness and positive development for Black children's education and health (both physical and mental).