St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) and the Minneapolis School District have ended contracts with their respective police departments. In response to community pressure following the Memorial Day death of George Floyd while in police custody, two of Minnesota’s largest districts will no longer have officers in their schools.
The moves are shortsighted. For the most part, school resource officers (SROs) have proved to be tremendous assets to students and school staffs.
SRO opponents argue that having cops in schools is more harmful than helpful — especially for students of color who may fear being mistreated or arrested for minor disciplinary issues that should be handled by school staff. The presence of officers, they say, creates a hostile school environment.
In both Minneapolis and St. Paul, school officials received hundreds of e-mails and other contacts urging them to remove cops from schools. During a recent St. Paul anti-SRO protest, students and alumni spoke of how the $775,000 budgeted for school cops in 2019-20 could be better spent on teachers of color and support staff.
Treatment of students by armed, in-school officers is an understandable concern, given the wider problems with police that have fueled mostly peaceful protests and some violent rioting in the Twin Cities and across the nation. Police departments must change and root out the subculture of officers who have caused so much race-based discrimination, injury and even death.
There have been a few incidents in schools in which individual cops have inappropriately used force or other unnecessarily harsh tactics with kids. In some cases, there wasn’t a clear understanding of the proper role of an SRO. Some officers were not well-trained or didn’t have the temperament to develop relationships with teenagers.
Well-trained SROs can be good mentors, counselors and coaches. Those positive interactions can help shape students’ lifetime views of officers as true public servants, not militaristic occupying forces.
In fact, in a 2017 survey, Minneapolis principals and the majority of students and staff urged the district to keep the SRO program. And in St. Paul, a 2019 student survey showed that more than 90% of 11th-graders wanted SROs in their buildings. That same state poll showed that more than 94% of students statewide believed having SROs in schools was a good idea.
Before the decision to drop SROs, principals from St. Paul’s seven high schools wrote a letter of support that called the officers “vital tools in our collective efforts to be more just and equitable schools.” St. Paul schools had been seeing positive results from efforts to improve student-SRO interactions. Cops were dressed in light-blue polo shirts and were trained to find ways to keep students out of the juvenile justice system. By using diversion programs, arrest totals dropped from 56 in 2015-16 to five in 2016-17.
School officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul have said they’ll have alternative school safety plans in place before students are back in the classroom. It likely would have been more reassuring to many students and families in the two districts who supported having officers in the schools — and to the Star Tribune Editorial Board — if details of those plans had been developed before the SRO programs were scrapped.