Concerns over role of police in London schools

London Assembly member raises concerns after race equality think tank recommends removal of safer school officers, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Caroline Russell AM, Green Party group leader on the London Assembly
Caroline Russell AM, Green Party group leader on the London Assembly

Concerns have been raised about the role of police in some of London’s secondary schools – and whether they are being used to discipline pupils.

Caroline Russell, a Green member of the London Assembly, told a meeting of City Hall’s police and crime committee that she was worried about police being used inappropriately in educational settings.

Dame Lynne Owens, the newly-appointed deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, said the Met needed to be clearer with schools about what officers are there for. Senior staff at City Hall meanwhile insisted there was widespread support for keeping officers in schools.

Caroline told the meeting last week: “People have said to me that they feel that police in schools are being used almost to pick up disciplinary matters in schools, rather than taking that broader approach to looking at what’s happening within the community and potentially signposting people to other groups and organisations around the Met.”

She added that there was “a lot of concern about police in schools actually getting some young people connected into the criminal justice system”, rather than acting as a deterrent to crime.

Responding, Dame Lynne said the Met needed to be “explicit with schools that we are not there to deal with their disciplinary issues, because if we step into that space there is a very real risk we criminalise children that we wouldn’t have encountered on the streets in that way”.

She also said she wanted to see police in schools, known as safer schools officers (SSOs), better linked up with police in the wider community, known as safer neighbourhood teams, to help tackle, for example, violence or bullying outside school gates.

Caroline referred to a recent report from race equality think tank The Runnymede Trust, which called for SSOs to be withdrawn from schools, as “their presence disproportionately impacts black and minority ethnic communities and fails to support a safer school environment” – and she asked senior staff at City Hall whether they agreed with that finding.

Diana Luchford, chief executive of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (Mopac), said: “Our surveys generally have a high level of support for SSOs. Something like 93% of Londoners, overall [support them].

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“[Among] young people who were aware of their safer schools officer, 41% believe the officer made them feel more safe at school, while only 3% felt they made them less safe.”

She added there was generally “a good deal of support for the principle of SSOs, where it works well – and in fact some appetite to extend the model from secondary schools into primary schools, although clearly there is understandably a capacity issue there”.

Sophie Linden, London’s deputy mayor for policing and crime, said that a forthcoming City Hall report on SSOs would recommend improved collection of ethnicity data and the creation of a performance framework for SSOs.

She said more work was needed to assure groups like The Runnymede Trust that police officers in schools “provide a positive experience for young people”.

“The whole thrust of it has always been that it does develop a good relationship with young people and it’s much better for a young person in London to have their first experience with a police officer in school – which is not a confrontational experience, such as on the street through stop-and-search,” she said.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service later in the week, Caroline detailed her concerns.

“If for instance, they [school staff] find a young person with a very small quantity of cannabis, they could decide to flush it down the toilet, have a serious conversation with that young person about the risk of what they’re doing and bringing something like that into the school, and they could use it as an opportunity for a teaching moment,” she said.

“Once that gets referred to the police, then that child is in the criminal justice system, and the police obviously have to deal with it like that.

“Sometimes there is a bit of practical wisdom and discretion that a head [teacher] might have – rather than going immediately to panic, escalate – to actually think, ‘What’s going on in this young person’s life? What other help might they need? Why is this young person presenting in this situation?’ and think about it from a safeguarding perspective, and from a child’s wellbeing point of view, rather than immediately escalating it into the criminal justice system.”

It is not known when City Hall’s report about SSOs will be published, but Sophie Linden said it would be “as soon as we can”.

Earlier this year a police officer who worked as an SSO at an Enfield secondary school admitted a string of child sex offences, including having sex with a 14-year-old girl.

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