Documenting Police Sexual Violence
In Our Names Network is spearheading a research project that examines the complexities and pervasiveness of police sexual violence in and around schools. Police violence is racialized patriarchal violence, and this project seeks to make those connections by illuminating how sexual harm enacted on young Black girls, femmes, trans, gender nonconforming, and non-binary students is part of the larger set of oppressive structures and tactics.
This community-based storytelling project partners with four network members (Girls for Gender Equity, Black Swan, EveryBlackGirl, & Young Women’s Freedom Center) to design and disseminate surveys and focus groups to learn more about sexual violence experienced by Black girls and gender expansive students at the hands of police and private security both in and around schools. Through this project, we are learning from and building skills, leadership and engagement of young Black femmes, women, and non-binary researchers and centering their voices and experiences in campaigns for #PoliceFreeSchools.
Schools are among the primary sites of sexual violence by police and security guards, despite the mainstream cultural narrative of police presence increases student safety. As part of our network members' campaigns for #PoliceFreeSchools, youth researchers have begun the hard, yet important, task of documenting sexual harassment, assault, and racialized gender-based violence by police in schools against Black girls, femmes, and non-binary youth in 4 cities.
Journey with us through this digital exhibition recording our research process, stories, advantages/challenges of community-based storytelling, and doing Black feminist and abolitionist work during a pandemic. These are the stories the data can not always tell.
Where We Operate
While the project was conceived at our 2019 IONN Network Gathering, it has unfolded in a time of multiple crises of public health, police violence, economic collapse and environmental disasters. The landscape during the time of COVID has required that our approach to community storytelling work to change drastically. Our research team has worked hard to center abolitionist and Black feminist frameworks that allow space for not only rigorous research but also joy and healing. Despite COVID restrictions, we were able to come together across communities to learn together, build community, and design our research approach.
At our July 2019 Network Gathering held at the historic Highlander Center for Research and Education, Network members agreed to move forward with four campaigns, including one focused on sexual violence by police stationed in and around schools. This decision was rooted in the reality that:
many of the #AssaultAt incidents documented by Network member the Advancement Project as part of its #PoliceFreeSchools campaign involved police violence, including police sexual violence, against young Black women, girls, trans and gender nonconforming and non-binary youth;
that the officer involved in the #AssaultAtSpringValley was connected to police sexual violence;
and that what little research exists shows that up to ¼ to ½ of reported incidents of sexual violence by police involve minors;
Network co-founder Andrea J. Ritchie joined with lead researcher Connie Wun, later joined by lead researcher Deana Lewis came together to draft the project proposal for a community storytelling research project documenting police sexual violence in schools, and to develop it with network members representing Girls for Gender Equity, EveryBlackGirl, and Freedom, Inc. As the pandemic unfolded, new questions emerged: “ What does school look like now? How do we conduct this research remotely when people can’t speak candidly in their homes/spaces? What about issues of consent/assent? How do we support young people? Do we engage their parents?”
A year later, July 20th, 2020, In Our Names Network came together again for a Network Gathering at the Allied Media Conference (AMC), which included a session discussing police sexual violence against Black girls, femmes, and nonbinary youth and sharing the research project plan that we had been developing since we left Highlander. Speakers included Vivian Anderson (Columbia, SC), Angelique Strong Marks (Detroit, MI), Ashley Sawyer (NYC), Bianca Gomez (Madison, WI), and the conversation was facilitated by Maria Fernandez (NYC). The session highlighted the #PoliceFreeSchools campaign which raises awareness around the violence police and campus security bring to spaces of learning and the disproportionate discipline aimed at Black young women, girls, trans, gendernonconforming and nonbinary students. The conversation uplifted the realities of schools as sites of violence and harassment for this population of students and illuminated the structures and beliefs at play that enable these harms. Toxic masculinity in all its forms (impunity, entitlement, and easy access to military grade weapons) embodied by police in these spaces operates alongside the criminalization of schools through implementation of discriminatory school discipline and arrests, metal detectors, strip searches, and dress codes to build a foundation of carceral violence that Black girls experience in schools. #PoliceFreeSchools campaigns call for removal of police from schools to interrupt this cycle, return control to our communities, and ensure liberatory education for all..
In the Spring of 2021, the research team began to recruit youth researchers in 4 cities. The research team worked hard to prioritize the participation of youth most directly impacted by police presence in and around schools, including darker skinned, trans, gender nonconforming, disabled, and migrant Black youth. Youth researchers committed to virtual meetings and two trainings for a 12 month period working with other youth in their cities and counties. Despite the reality of COVID, the research team continued to dream up new ways of doing such important, yet painful, work virtually by incorporating playful check in questions, mindfulness-based activities led by healing justice practitioners, and more. This research project solidified partnerships with the organizations Girls for Gender Equity, Black Swan, EveryBlackGirl, & Young Women’s Freedom Center, utilizing the team’s call for youth researchers to recruit Black girls and gender expansive youth from their communities. The methods of focus groups and surveys are being developed to gather data with youth researchers leading participant recruitment and focus group facilitation.
What truly sets this work apart is the addition of healing justice practitioners to support the youth researchers conducting work that may be triggering. Our practitioners, Tiffany Lenoi Jones and Naimah Efia, held separate meetings with youth researchers to hold space for what emerges for them during the research process, processing the reality of the many issues of the world happening concurrently to the work, and affirming who they are as researchers and human beings.
Currently, the project is on a short pause to honor all of the work done within the preliminary research, planning, and recruitment, and to reflect Black feminist practices of collective care in practice by offering breathing space for the research team to rest and recenter.