The Minneapolis Public Schools will decrease the number of police on its campuses, the school board decided Tuesday night, the culmination of a summer of heated discussions about tensions between officers and students.
Next week, a similar plan is up for vote in St. Paul Public Schools. While the numbers are small — Minneapolis cut two officers and St. Paul has a plan to do the same — the significance looms large.
“I continue to feel like we are heading the right direction for our students and staff,” Minneapolis Superintendent Ed Graff said at the Tuesday meeting.
After hours of discussion, all board members except KerryJo Felder voted for the contract for school resource officers, also known as SROs.
The issue of police in schools has intensified in both districts and nationwide over the past few years in the aftermath of fatal shootings. Some say school officers are threatening and disproportionately discipline minority students. About 50 students and community members rallied outside Minneapolis schools headquarters before the Tuesday meeting in opposition to SROs and the district’s plan.
But Minneapolis principals are urging the district to maintain a police presence. Washburn High School Principal Rhonda Dean said that schools are vulnerable and the officers are deterrents “to keep that bad element out of our schools.”
“It would be reckless of us to not provide a safe environment,” Dean said.
St. Paul as a case study
Minneapolis officials could look across the river for a one-year case study.
Last year, St. Paul voted in an idea to make officers more favorable presences, and schools are seeing positive results. Officers now dress in light-blue polo shirts, and are directed to find ways to keep students out of the court system — except in the most serious cases. The number of arrests dropped from 56 in 2015-16 to five in 2016-17.
In St. Paul, police and district leaders set out a year ago to have officers engage with students in more positive ways. The move followed protests over the forceful arrest in May 2016 of a black student by a white officer at Central High.
The district’s contract with police was amended then to require reports documenting when officers had any physical contact with students — as well as positive interactions. Year-end statistics show that officers used pepper spray once, down from nine incidents in 2015-16, and handcuffed students on 19 occasions. Officers reported having 3,210 positive contacts with students.
The biggest change, however, is in how officers approach whether to arrest a student and place him or her in the criminal justice system.
Laura Olson, the district’s security director, said the line of thinking goes: “Yes, this is a crime. Yes, we could take the student downtown. However, what’s in the best interest of the student?”
The St. Paul school board is expected to vote next week on a proposal to continue stationing officers at seven high schools but eliminate two roving officers. That would reduce the district’s SRO costs from $884,499 to $697,974.
Olson said she would like to use some of the savings to deploy more community liaison officers — people who work with SROs and kids, and who are trained in nonviolent crisis intervention techniques.
The number of school resource officers in Minneapolis schools will drop from 16 to 14 under the plan approved Tuesday. It cuts the contract with the police department from almost $1.28 million to $1.15 million for this school year. The district said it would use that $130,000 in savings for training and SRO support.
Minneapolis’ contract would also put police in “soft uniform” khakis and polo shirts, more clearly state the SRO’s role and add an evaluation of officers.
The Minneapolis plan comes after the district surveyed almost 7,000 students, 700 staff and 600 parents. The majority in each group agreed that school resource officers should be in schools. Forty percent of the students surveyed, however, said they wanted the officers to spend less time in their schools.
Some community groups like the Black Liberation Project and Minneapolis NAACP have been adamant that the board should get rid of police in schools. After the vote Tuesday, people attending shouted at board members, forcing them to finish the meeting in a different room.
Hennepin County attorney’s office data show decreases in school crime referrals across the county, including Minneapolis schools, and an attorney’s office release called SROs “a significant factor” in the decrease.