Recent events have produced sharp contrasts in how school resource officers — cops in the schools — are viewed locally, and their use in St. Paul and Minneapolis is now up for debate.
In May, St. Paul School District leaders honored Vernon Simmons, a longtime school resource officer, or SRO, known for his calming presence at Johnson High, then saw Central High students protest a white officer's forceful arrest of a black teen for trespassing a week later.
This week, Minneapolis is hosting community conversations on school climate — weeks after its secondary-school principals made an unsuccessful pitch to beef up the presence of officers in their schools.
If there is agreement, it's this: A resource officer should be more mentor, less enforcer, in dealings with students.
For now, there's tension, much of it in St. Paul.
Video of the 16-year-old's arrest at Central High was met with outrage in social media. The teen, a former Central student, was seen pinned on his stomach by Officer Bill Kraus while he cried for help, insisting that he was there only to visit a teacher. But police said that the teen was at the school for about an hour without permission, refused requests to leave and shoved the officer, who they say acted appropriately.
The incident came as the school board nears a June 21 decision on whether to approve a new contract for resource officers. The district now pays $854,214 to deploy nine.
While stopping short of saying resource officers should be pulled from the schools, Steve Marchese, a first-year board member, said in a Facebook post that the incident at Central raises questions about the "continued wisdom of SROs in our schools." He wants a public conversation about their role in the district. A group calling itself Advocates for Families and Youth has set such an event for 4:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Hamline Midway Library.
As for students, they have been a part of the conversation for months now. Last fall, a student group was created in St. Paul to survey peers on potentially weighty issues, and its first subject was interactions with school resource officers.
The study found that the more frequent the contacts, the more likely students were to view officers favorably. But the interactions are infrequent, the group learned, and black, Hispanic and American Indian students are less inclined than their white and Asian counterparts to go to the officers for help.
The group wanted to ask students if schools should continue to have resource officers, but the district vetoed that plan. Spokeswoman Toya Stewart Downey said this week that it was not because the district feared what the answers would reveal, but because it did not want students thinking "removing SROs was an option when it clearly was not."
Several students have kept up the push to improve the school resource officer program. At a May 24 meeting with police and district leaders, three of them — Rogelio Salinas, Keith Eicher and Zoe Sblendoriogiebel — learned that the city and the district have agreed to change the officers' uniforms to look less like those of street cops.
And the students heard about plans for school-level committees that would include students and resource officers and that would meet monthly to discuss school climate and other building concerns.
Steve Linders, a police spokesman, said each school would have its own committee, because "each school has its own personality."
Salinas, a Highland Park senior, said he believes there is agreement that the ideal school resource officer works to create strong relationships with young people and is not there to "criminalize students."
He said Highland's officer, Cortez Hull, is "exactly what you'd for hope for. … He's the mentor, instead of trying to get you in trouble for petty crimes."
Still, the students have deep concerns in the wake of the Central incident. They agree that the resource officers should protect schools in emergencies, but they contend that the Central incident was not such a case. Salinas notes that the district's student behavior handbook does not list trespassing among the offenses that warrant a call to police.
The group adds that Central students have come forward alleging racial profiling by their school resource officer. People need to "hear this pain" before they decide the program's fate, the group says.
What next in Minneapolis?
In Minneapolis this week, the school climate conversations have as a stated goal an effort to see if there are any immediate concerns about school resource officers. Sixteen are stationed now at a cost of $1.2 million.
In April, secondary principals requested full-time resource officers in all grades 6-8 and 9-12 schools, plus an unspecified number to be shared among K-8 and high-need elementary schools. They were told the district couldn't afford it.
The first of this week's community discussions was held at Sheridan Middle School. Nancy Eder, a member of the faith-based social justice group ISAIAH, asked if the resource officers wear uniforms and if staff members felt safer due to their presence. Eder said later: "I don't like them in schools. So many of the kids have bad experiences with the police."
The last of this week's sessions is from 5 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Washburn High, and the district plans to continue its conversations in the fall.