If Minneapolis Public Schools students are able to return to their classrooms this fall, the hallways they roam will be free of police for the first time in more than 50 years.
Soon, the same could be said for a growing number of public school districts across the country, which are considering following Minneapolis’ lead in kicking officers out of schools after the police killing of George Floyd.
Just as Floyd’s death in Minneapolis sparked a nationwide movement against police violence, so, too, has it reignited the debate over the presence of officers in schools. Urban school districts in Portland, Denver and Milwaukee have since cut ties with police departments for school resource officers, or SROs, and districts in other large cities are considering it. It’s a striking turnabout for American schools that have shored up their security over the years in response to the threat of school shootings.
“We are seeing a historic moment here,” said Peter Demerath, a University of Minnesota professor who studies school culture and improvement. “It is a moment of opportunity to make meaningful change, not only in policing but in … education as well.”
Districts across Minnesota have revisited their contracts with police in recent weeks, but none except Minneapolis and Winona have taken such action. Students and activists across the state are demanding change.
During a school board meeting last week, St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said he received more than 1,000 e-mails since Floyd’s death, with most people urging the district to remove SROs from schools. The funds, budgeted at up to $775,000 in 2019-20, should instead be spent on student supports, critics say.
In Duluth, a student-led petition calling on the city’s school district to end its relationship with police and stop the “school-to-prison pipeline” had garnered more than 900 signatures as of Sunday night.
“We believe removing the presence of police in our schools will improve the learning environment for all students,” Duluth school board student representative Nabiha Imtiaz told members last week.
Critics of school officers have long voiced concern over how they treat students of color, saying their presence criminalizes student behavior. Supporters counter that when school policing is done right, officers serve as mentors and even counselors to students, in addition to a first line of defense in the event of an emergency.
“It’s a very active engagement in community-based policing and really connecting with … what will be the next generation of adults,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.
Some districts stick with cops
St. Paul could decide on whether to continue deploying SROs in schools on Tuesday. Unlike in Minneapolis, where a board member accused the police department of a “blatant disregard for black lives,” St. Paul school board members offered words of appreciation last week for the district’s seven SROs.
The district has worked hard to shift an officer’s role from that of enforcer to mentor, and to reduce the number of student arrests. In 2018-19, the last year for which numbers were available, SROs made 41 arrests, down from 180 in 2013-14, but up from five in 2016-17 — the year the district and police set out to consciously avoid putting students into the criminal justice system.
“St. Paul really does things differently,” Laura Olson, the district’s security and emergency management director, told board members last week. “We are a national leader, by far.”
But the killing of Floyd has sparked calls for change and a confronting of systemic racism in the district, feelings aired by some board members last week.
“Inaction will not get us anywhere,” Vice Chairwoman Jeanelle Foster said. “It is time for folks to figure out what you value.”
In the absence of an alternative plan for life after SROs, Gothard said he liked the idea of having an advisory task force create what that model could look like.
Some of Minnesota’s other large districts have elected to continue with SROs in 2020-21 but are taking steps to ensure officers better understand students’ needs.
Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest school district, contracts with multiple suburban police departments. Officers are stationed at five high schools, six middle schools and a special education center. Spokesman Jim Skelly said the district plans to maintain its relationships with local police.
“It seems like the system that’s in place is serving both the police departments and the schools well,” he said.
Osseo, which budgeted $516,938 for 10 officers from Brooklyn Park and Maple Grove in 2019-20, approved a new three-year contract recently that calls for annual joint program reviews plus training in areas including social-emotional learning and approaches to behavior that emphasize relationships over punitive action.
In South Washington County, which budgeted about $400,000 for five officers from Cottage Grove and Woodbury, Superintendent Keith Jacobus met recently with the chiefs of both departments and all agreed that SROs are to focus on relationship building and open communication with staff and students, district spokesman Pepe Barton said.
Rochester, which budgeted $334,956 for five city police officers in 2019-20, took to Facebook recently to explain, in part, that SROs do more than provide safety and security, and are trained in counseling and other skills so they can be effective both in school settings and in crises.
“I think the vision … and the policy of the district will define that role and that relationship with the SRO,” said Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association.
Some lament Mpls. decision
Back in Minneapolis, many praised the school board’s unanimous decision to cut ties with police.
Nathaniel Genene, student representative to the Minneapolis school board, said during the June 2 meeting that he surveyed more than 1,000 fellow students on the decision. The overwhelming majority supported the district’s divestment from Minneapolis police.
But at North High School, students and administrators have lamented the decision. The school’s SRO, Charles Adams III, is a fixture and a father figure to many students. He’s also the school’s football coach.
Last week, around 30 North football players gathered in a garage-style gym for the team’s first group workout since March. The fate of Adams weighed on them.
“He’s like another father to me. He really cares about us and he shows it a lot,” said junior receiver Rio Sanders. “In the school, things happen. He’s one that stops things from getting out of hand, not letting it get too far.”
Adams remains the coach, but he’s still waiting to see what his new policing assignment will be, and whether it conflicts with his coaching duties.
In a recent Facebook post, North High Principal Mauri Friestleben expressed her disappointment with the district’s decision. Adams, she said, “stands for what is good within my school, what is good within the police department, and what is good within Minneapolis.”
“... It is at times like these that I wish I weren’t at the will of nine elected officials who will make a decision for all that will deeply impact our one,” Friestleben said.
Staff writer Jim Paulsen contributed to this report.