October 23, 2002

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The Marshall mess

THE SAN FRANCISCO Police Department's heavy-handed response to an Oct. 11 fight at Thurgood Marshall Academic High School in the Bayview was way out of proportion – and a case study in what's wrong with police presence in the public schools.

More than 60 cops were called in to handle what started as a simple fight (and could almost certainly have been handled with far less force). According to eyewitnesses, some struck students with batons while at least one pulled a gun.

The way the San Francisco Unified School District has downplayed the incident is equally disturbing. A fact sheet issued by the SFUSD says simply, "The fight was broken-up." School officials seem reluctant to publicly criticize the SFPD, encouraging students and parents to simply move on.

But that's the wrong response. As Cassi Feldman and Lee Hubbard report on page 26, the cops' overreaction at Marshall wasn't a fluke. It was a direct result of increased police presence in schools and the criminalization of students. Minor disciplinary problems are increasingly treated as criminal acts in San Francisco schools, and kids are getting dragged into the justice system for no valid reason (see "Police Academy," 12/5/01).

And while the SFUSD is trying to duck it, there's a very real racial issue here. A similar fight outside Lincoln High School, in the Sunset – involving Asian American and white kids, not African Americans – drew only three officers.

The school board needs to discuss this incident – and all the questions is raises – in public and should use it as an opportunity to review whether there's really a case for an ongoing police presence in the schools. Meanwhile, the SFUSD should make it clear that no students will be expelled and there will be no criminal charges filed, in an event that was exacerbated, if not incited, by the SFPD.