DULUTH – Public school leaders pledged to examine the impact on-site police officers have on the district’s students after calls to cut ties with law enforcement emerged in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
The Duluth school district’s $250,000 annual contract with the Police Department is up for renewal, and board members said Tuesday that they need more time to hear from community members before deciding on any changes to the school resource officer program.
A student-led petition that garnered more than 1,000 signatures asked Duluth to remove the officers, or SROs, from its schools, following the lead of Minneapolis and St. Paul, who ended their affiliations with police last month.
The petition says the presence of SROs exacerbates racial disparities by extending “the reach of the school-to-prison pipeline.”
In the four-hour meeting Tuesday, the board heard from local principals highlighting the value of their SROs, stationed by police in the district’s four secondary institutions.
The administrators listed examples of ways in which the officers are involved in their school communities and work with staff to de-escalate potentially dangerous situations.
“Canceling an SRO contract is one solution to an undefined problem,” said Ron Lake, the district’s climate coordinator who presented data on bullying and behavior incidents. “I would encourage you, as a school board, to listen and understand our community and define the problem. And then come up with a range of options and pick the best one.”
In the 2018-19 academic year, Black students, who make up 6% of the district’s students, were involved in 31% of the 88 incidents to which SROs responded. Over the last five years, Duluth police have made 10 juvenile arrests on school properties.
The 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, which is administered every three years to eighth-, ninth- and 11th-graders across the state, showed that more than 90% of Duluth students said they thought it was a good idea to have SROs in schools. However, more than a third of the students of color surveyed in the district said they would not feel comfortable going to officers if they had problems.
“The assumption going out there that there’s complete trust — it’s just not true,” said Phoenix Ocean, a student representative on the board.
The Duluth branch of the NAACP wrote a statement supporting the petition and urging the board to gather more input before deciding whether to renew its contract with the police “in order to better serve students with culturally responsive, trauma-informed support personnel.”
New Superintendent John Magas noted that Duluth follows a community policing model “that’s different from aspects of law enforcement of larger metropolitan areas in the state and in the country that have moved away from SRO models.” He floated the possibility of approving a temporary contract to allow the board more time to solicit feedback.
“I think we have to really look at things from an anti-racist perspective. How can we look at structures that we have placed to ensure that they are not overcategorizing certain students or placing students at a disadvantage?” he said. “That’s something that would take time to do well.”