On a recent Friday afternoon at Roosevelt High in Minneapolis, school cop Drea Leal got an urgent page: There was a fight.
Leal raced up the stairs and faced an angry female student, who recklessly started swinging, at one point hitting her. But Leal responded calmly, dropping her hands and standing back to give the student some space and allow staff to step in and defuse the situation.
“You don’t handle it here the way you’d handle it on the streets,” said Leal, who was wearing a traditional police uniform.
Critics of police say far too few officers in the schools respond in a calm way. And concerns over how police officers treat people of color in general also have many questioning whether police should be in the schools at all.
The local chapter of Students for Education Reform recently petitioned the school board, arguing that school resource officers (SROs) lack proper training and skills to deal with students, particularly those of color.
While the state’s third-largest school system is continuing its decadeslong relationship with the city’s police department to provide SROs, school board members are gearing up to negotiate a new contract in June that they say will address some of the persistent concerns raised by activists and community members.
Meanwhile, a majority of school principals are in favor of having SROs, a recent district survey shows. They say the sworn police officers keep their buildings safe and have positive interactions with staff and students.
Leal may appear to be the picture of calm, but as the first-time school cop roams the halls, stopping to chat with students and even share relationship advice, she admits it hasn’t always been easy.
Students now treat her like a big sister or a parent figure, but when the three-year officer took her post at Roosevelt in August, students were quick to judge her, she said.
Trying to connect
“When I first started here, the kids were like ‘Don’t talk to me. I don’t talk to cops. My family don’t talk to cops,’ ” Leal said. “You go from that to, ‘Can you come to my basketball game?’ ”
Deszie Sims, a senior at Roosevelt, said previous school resource officers steered clear of interacting with students unless they were in trouble. But “Officer Drea” makes a deliberate effort to connect with students, he said.
“You would expect her to be rude like the other ones,” Sims, 17, said. But “she’s the reason why I come back to school. She treats me like her son and tries to help me do well.”
Students Kaliyah Bland and Akerrah Profit said they have been afraid of school resource officers in the past, but feel safe around their new SRO.
“No one is afraid of her,” Bland, a junior, said. “She knows everybody — even the ones who don’t get in trouble.”
Currently, the Minneapolis School District has 14 such officers who are based mostly in the high schools, but spend time in the middle schools and elementary schools as well. Leal is responsible for Roosevelt, but she goes to Northrop, Bancroft and Folwell elementary schools twice a month. She said she applied for the job because she wants to have a positive influence on young people.
“I have a huge heart for kids, but I have a huger heart for young adults,” she said.
District officials, meanwhile, are working to fix the strained relations between students and school resource officers by replacing traditional police uniforms with polo shirts and implementing a restorative practices approach to keep students out of the criminal justice system.
At a school board meeting in December, officials presented a report on school climate issues, which included data on suspension rates, the number of referrals to law enforcement and surveys of students, parents and staff.
A district survey this school year gave mostly positive marks to school resource officers. But the data also showed that school cops have more interactions with black students than with their peers.
School resource officers also are keeping track of how many times they are selected by school staff for problems involving students.
Leal said she avoids confronting students for misbehavior that is not considered a crime. This school year, she has arrested a few students for bringing drugs to school. But her role stretches beyond enforcing laws and includes mentoring, career coaching and counseling.
Several students have already approached her about ways they could join the police force, she said.
“The hardest part about this job is the young teenagers that are disrespectful,” Leal said. “In the heat of the moment, they might curse me out, but I still have to maintain my composure and show them respect.”
Revisiting the role
School board member Kim Ellison, who’s pushing a proposal to revisit the district’s relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department, said in the past district officials rushed the negotiations. And because of that, she said, the district now pays up to 70 percent of the cost for the SRO program, without the community having much of a voice in the process.
“There’s still a lot of people who don’t know what the officers do in the schools,” Ellison said. “We need to have a larger discussion, which will take more time.”
Back at Roosevelt, the school day is almost over, and Leal is getting ready to attend a basketball game. Roosevelt is playing North High.
Even after a long day in the school, Leal makes one more stop before going home to see her two children. She squeezes in a workout to recharge.
“Is it tiring? Yes, it’s tiring,” Leal said of spending nearly nine hours a day with students. “They get under my skin, but it’s bound to happen. It’s like raising your own children.”