The St. Paul school board voted Tuesday to reduce the number of police officers patrolling its schools.
The idea of trimming the number of school resource officers, or SROs, from nine to seven was pitched in July, and Tuesday’s 5-1 vote marks the second consecutive year that the state’s second-largest district has made substantive changes to its SRO program.
Last week, the Minneapolis school board agreed to reduce its pool of officers by two, and to put the 14 SROs who remain in “soft uniform” polo shirts — a change enacted in St. Paul in 2016-17.
St. Paul has been ahead of the curve in other ways, too, when it comes to trying to ease tensions between cops and students.
Officers were directed in 2016-17 to explore alternatives to arresting students and putting them in the court system. The number of arrests fell from 56 in 2015-16 to five in 2016-17. Students were handcuffed on 19 occasions. Pepper spray was used once, compared with nine times in 2015-16.
In the public comment period before Tuesday’s meeting, Linda Kantner, a social worker hired to work as a consultant with the officers, told board members that she initially was skeptical about their ability to work with problem kids. But, she said, she shadowed an officer at Johnson High on the East Side and was impressed by the compassion he showed a girl who told him she’d been choked.
“He talked to her about her right not to be hurt,” Kantner said. “I was not only impressed, I was astonished.”
Board Member Steve Marchese, who a year ago questioned whether officers should be in the schools, said the district should still continue to review “best practices” nationally and try to determine what is the best long-term plan for safety and enforcement in the schools.
“The cost is substantial,” he said. “What is the end game in all that?”
The new plan calls for the district to continue stationing officers at seven high schools but eliminate two roving officers. In some cases, street cops would have to be called to elementary schools, which is not ideal, said Laura Olson, the district’s security director.
The district’s SRO costs would be cut from $884,499 to $697,974. Olson said she’d like to use some savings to hire more community liaison officers, who work with SROs and kids, and who are trained in nonviolent crisis-intervention techniques.
“They’re a great value: $20 an hour,” Olson said.
Board member Jeanelle Foster voted “no,” and Zuki Ellis abstained.