Warning: The following contains graphic details which some readers may find upsetting.
This week, a report published by Hackney Council revealed that in 2020 a 15-year-old Black girl at a Hackney secondary school was strip-searched while on her period, over unfounded suspicions she was in possession of cannabis. The young girl was made to bend over naked, spread her legs and use her hands to spread her buttocks while coughing — this was done on the basis she “smelt of cannabis.” Two female police officers were present during the search, with teachers standing outside the room. The girl’s mother was not notified by the school in advance, and was informed of the incident by her daughter. Three Metropolitan police officers are under investigation as a result, and the report has stated categorically that the search was “insufficiently attuned to her best interests or right to privacy” and that racism “was likely to have been an influencing factor” in choosing to involve the police.
The details of this case are disturbing and horrific. Whilst global conversations were sparked that same year following the brutal murder of George Floyd by a police officer in the U.S., it’s clear that the violence of the state, particularly the criminal justice system continues to plague Black communities, including young Black girls here in the UK.
The now outgoing Commissioner of the Met Police Cressida Dick stated the Met is not institutionally racist, despite a slew of racist incidents involving police officers. This was exacerbated further by The Sewell Report commissioned by the government and published a year ago, which claimed that institutional racism in Britain did not exist.
The state violence against Black women, especially Black girls can often be forgotten in conversations around institutional racism and police brutality. Blackness is hypermasculinsed, impacting not only Black boys but Black girls as well, who are also perceived as a threat. Black girls are unfairly robbed of their innocence and treated harshly, in what is referred to as “adultification”. The choice by the school, in the case of Child Q, to involve the criminal justice system so quickly reflects how willing many are to view Black girls as inherently criminal, resorting to police intervention rather than safeguarding solutions. The lack of aftercare, following what some, including equality campaigner Patrick Vernon, have deemed “state rape”, suggests a toughness and resilience expected of Black girls which is completely illogical.
“Had Child Q been a middle class white girl going to a grammar school, it’s much more likely she would have been afforded innocence.”
cHLOE Cousins, KIDS OF COLOUR
Contrary to this, the harrowing impact on Child Q is made stark in the report. She stated: “I can't go a single day without wanting to scream, shout, cry or just give up...I feel like I'm locked in a box, and no one can see or cares that I just want to go back to feeling safe again…I don’t know if I’m going to feel normal again.” Her mother also added Child Q “is a changed person. She is not eating, every time I find her, she is in the bath, full of water and sleeping in the bath. Not communicating with us as (she) used to, doesn’t want to leave her room, panic attacks at school, doesn't want to be on the road, screams when sees/hears the police, and we need to reassure her”.
Fola is a Black female primary school teacher in Ilford. She felt disgusted about the incident and tells Unbothered, “I don’t think what they [the police] did was justified. Because they thought she smelt of cannabis does not seem like a justifiable reason to strip search a child…I can’t imagine any safeguarding saying that was acceptable. School is generally where they are supposed to feel safe. We’re supposed to foster an element of care and safety.” Research from the U.S. shows strip searching children can cause anxiety, depression, loss of concentration, sleep disturbances, difficulty performing in school, phobic reactions, shame, guilt, depression, and other lasting emotional scars. These negative consequences can last for years.
I also spoke to Chloe Cousins, a Youth Worker and Development Officer from Kids of Colour, a community interest company highlighting the diverse experiences belonging to young people of color. The organization is also currently spearheading the campaign “No Police In Schools” in Manchester. Cousins states the police being called was unnecessary, and that “teachers should be more than equipped to deal with these issues”. She explained that lack of funding is a significant factor in why some schools are relying on policing to solve what are primarily social and safeguarding issues. “Because schools are under-resourced and overstretched, it can lead to dangerous decisions being made. If there were more youth workers, counselors and therapists, issues like this could be managed in a child-centered way, and more easily managed within school.”
Cousins makes it clear that the police are in no way equipped to deal with these issues, particularly with young people. “If a school needs to call the police over an issue like this, it suggests the school is ill-prepared to deal with incidents… and calling the police on a Black young person is itself a safeguarding issue as we know the police disproportionately criminalise Black people.” Whilst many Black parents will be sceptical of how well their children are treated in any aspect of the state, it’s particularly heartbreaking to find that schools, who should be a place of safety and care, can so easily defer to or become a conduit to one of the most oppressive arms of the state for young Black people. The school-to-prison pipeline, often referred to in the US, is frighteningly real here in the UK too.
Perhaps this is a moment to participate in action to create change in our communities.
It’s also important to recognise that these issues Black girls face are compounded by class. Though all Black girls face racism, it will be working class Black girls like Child Q who most regularly face the harshest racism from the state. Working class areas in general tend to be overpoliced, and as Cousins points out: “it’s inequality at every level.” “Police in schools are most likely going to impact young Black people, people of color, working class young people, and those from Gypsy/Roma Traveller backgrounds,” she says. “Had Child Q been a middle class white girl going to a grammar school, it’s much more likely she would have been afforded innocence.” What might be viewed as potentially a silly mistake or sign of exploitation in other demographics, for working class Black girls is a criminal matter where the fullest force of the law is used.
So what are the solutions? This case has disgusted and angered many of us; so far all that has been offered in an apology from the police, but perhaps this is a moment to participate in action to create change in our communities. School teacher Fola suggested to me that the school’s policy may need to be redressed, and perhaps that’s something more all schools need to consider. The campaign “No Police in Schools” has a petition, resources to contact local politicians and upcoming protests for those concerned about the expansion of policing into educational spaces within the Greater Manchester Area. There is also campaigning work and protests calling for no police in schools, being organised by Hackney Copwatch on March 18 in Stoke Newington, London.
We also need to be asking ourselves whether within our local communities, we want money to be spent on better resources for schools, with trained professionals who can support vulnerable young people, rather than pouring more money into a policing institution that has shown us time and time again, does not care for young black lives, or indeed many other communities. Child Q has gone through immeasurable damage and she’s made it adamant that “I need to know that the people who have done this to me can't do it to anyone else ever again. In fact so NO ONE else can do this to any other child in their care”. Young Black girls are telling us there is no place for policing in schools; it’s time we listened.