For years, Minneapolis’ South High School students mourned in silence. When unarmed black men in this city and elsewhere were killed at the hands of police, they held sit-ins in the school gym. When they felt their pain wasn’t being acknowledged, they walked out of school and marched in the streets.
Now, more than two dozen South High students of color are hoping to repair their relationships with law enforcement through the arts and dialogue. With the help of professional artists, the students built an 8-foot-long “Peace Post” — engraved with messages and colorful drawings that depict their struggle of growing up in a world that raises them to fear law enforcement.
Recently, students helped facilitate a workshop between their peers, law enforcement and other government officials to share their concerns about safety and their knowledge of constitutional rights.
Tiger Worku, a junior at South High and one of the student leaders of the project, said his stomach still turns when he sees an officer. But the art project has given him and other students a chance to get to know their school resource officer (SRO) better.
“If you see a black man get shot repeatedly on TV and you come to school the next day and that same badge is there, it’s tough,” Worku said. “We are newer to sort of social justice in the world and we’re learning how to deal with our feelings.”
Said John Elder, a spokesman for the Minneapolis Police Department: “Events such as this build a stronger relationship with the community and the police department.”
For South High student Carlos Ortiz, the peace post symbolizes students’ pain and celebrates their right to free speech. Ortiz, one of the project organizers, and other students made the case that good SROs should not be penalized for the actions of a few bad ones.
Assistant Principal Isabel Rodriguez-Mendoza said the peace post will be displayed in the school and possibly shared with communities of color around the nation. Compassionate ARTS and Art to Change the World, two arts groups, helped fund and facilitate the project.
For generations, the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color has been fraught. And the presence of SROs in schools has especially been a topic of debate locally and nationally. Supporters of SROs say they help keep schools safe. Others argue they “perpetuate a culture of violence,” and activists are pushing to break what they call a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
South High students hope their art project can spur some policy changes, mend broken relationships and support school safety.
The role of school resource officers stretches beyond enforcing laws and includes mentoring, career coaching and counseling.
Meanwhile, tension is brewing at the school board. At a board meeting Tuesday, the Minnesota chapter of Students for Education Reform, an advocacy group, demanded that district officials reopen their current contract with the MPD. The group said resource officers do not have enough training and skills to deal with students and communities of color. Like social workers and counselors, they said, officers need to be equipped with specialized training to work effectively with at-risk youth and students who have experienced trauma or have special needs.
In the end, Board Member Kim Ellison proposed that district officials renegotiate the terms of the existing contract with the department. Ellison said she, too, would like to see more robust community engagement about the issue and a reduction in the cost for SROs.
“It doesn’t make sense to pay the amount that we’re paying for school resource officers. We should share that more equitably with the city,” said Ellison, who explained that her proposal was prompted in part by public outcry about the Christmas tree with racist ornaments recently displayed in the Fourth Precinct police headquarters’ lobby.
In an impassioned speech on Tuesday, Board Member Siad Ali also called for district officials to reevaluate the district’s partnership with the MPD. “When Minneapolis Police Department is disrespecting, insulting and hurting community feelings, I cannot ask the same people to come and help us,” he said.
Currently, 14 school resources officers serve the district’s high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. In 2017, school board members eliminated two roaming officers and signed a three-year contract with the department for $1.2 million a year. The savings from those reductions, district officials said, are being used for SRO support and training in areas such as child development, cultural sensitivity and restorative justice.
City officials said their recently passed budget does not prevent the Minneapolis Public Schools from reopening the contract. But any changes would have to be approved by the City Council, city officials said.
The school board will discuss the prospect of reopening the contract at next week’s committee meeting.