As Minnesota school districts cut ties with police and face a new test of determining how best to keep students and staff safe, a west metro district says it has found a way.

Intermediate School District 287, a cooperative serving about 1,000 high-needs kids from across a swath of Hennepin County, is reporting success after beginning to phase out the use of school resource officers (SROs) four years ago.

For three years, the district has gone it alone with a group of staff members known as student safety coaches — employees trained to de-escalate disruptive behavior but more importantly cultivate relationships with students.

Police still get called, and have responded, when needed. But arrests are down, and trust among students and coaches is rising, even during the pandemic, safety coaches and others say.

"Kids are showing up to the buildings. They are coming looking for us," said Don West, one of four coaches who began piloting the effort in 2016-17. "That's how I know it's working."

Whether the approach can be replicated in a larger, traditional district is the question, and St. Paul and Minneapolis now are among the school systems that must decide what security looks like without resource officers.

When the St. Paul school board voted 5-1 last month to cancel talks over a new police contract, Jessica Kopp, a first-year board member, publicly praised Theon Jarrett, student and safety manager in ISD 287, for a conversation earlier that day in which he offered insights into life after SROs.

Kopp said she would leave it to her district's experts to figure out whether student safety coaches are a viable option for the state's second-largest district. But she credited Jarrett with helping her realize it's possible to move on from a decadeslong relationship with police as long as the commitment is there.

"It's not like you make one decision and everything works," Kopp said. "You have to be intentional about it. You have to continue talking about why you're doing what you're doing."

To determine if it was on the right track, ISD 287 called upon Wilder Research to assess the safety coach program. A draft version of the report indicates "our approach has merit," Superintendent Sandy Lewandowski said last week.

Patience, not control

ISD 287 has four schools, and until four years ago, the district had contracts with police in Richfield, New Hope, Minnetonka and Brooklyn Park. Then, Richfield said it wanted to bow out, and each of the other departments requested going from one to two officers — "one to back the other up, if you will," Lewandowski said.

The district has students with emotional and behavioral disorders, and severe autism. Kids who in the past could have been cared for in hospitals or residential treatment centers are at school instead, because the district is the one entity legally obligated to serve them because of their special-education protections.

The district grew concerned that it was criminalizing behavior rooted in mental health issues and believed, too, it would be wrong to have two officers respond to students in crisis. So district leaders went a different route by drawing inspiration from educational assistants who had cultural backgrounds similar to the kids plus skills to calm them when they act out.

Lewandowski says it's all about understanding what kids need and getting them back in class.

West speaks of patience, and knowing that when a kid "blacks out," that is, winds up to a point where nothing you can say to them will be heeded, that it's a disability you're dealing with, not behavior alone. Physical intervention still may be needed, but you have to listen, too, he said.

"Policing is different," West added. "Policing is control."

"Complete control," Jarrett said.

Since student safety coaches were deployed, police have responded to 37 incidents in the district in 2017-18, 12 in 2018-19 and 15 during the fall of 2019-20, ISD 287 reports. The number of arrests fell from 65 to 12 during the program's pilot year and now average five per year across the district, officials say.

Wilder Research surveyed staff members and found that 74% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that the student safety coaches were effective at de-escalating situations and at helping students "cool down" when in crisis.

But do the buildings feel safer to staff members without police? There, the results were mixed. Among respondents who were there before and after the shift to safety coaches, 54% said they felt as safe as they did before while 30% did not.

Wilder is recommending as other potential areas of research a review of incident report data plus interviews or surveys of students and family members.

St. Paul's plans

When it voted to discontinue using officers in seven high schools, the St. Paul school board directed administrators to present an interim safety plan for board discussion in August.

The move came six months after the board unanimously approved the 2019-20 SRO contract — due in part to what officials described as a holistic approach to security and emergency management — holistic in that the district also said it soon would begin hiring what it described as school support liaisons. The new hires would be trained to de-escalate conflicts and build relationships with kids, officials said.

Then came a teachers strike, and the pandemic, and the jobs never were posted.

Last week, the district declined to discuss its planning or how liaisons or coaches could be part of that equation. Minneapolis, too, said it wouldn't talk about security until the issue is raised with school board members.

In 2019-20, ISD 287 budgeted $715,917 for 11 safety coaches and $203,065 for two program managers.

St. Paul's contract for its seven resource officers required the district to pay up to $775,000 during the same year.

Kopp said she believed that the district's SRO program was, "by almost any measure, as good as it could have been — led by talented people who love kids." But times change, she said.

Now, Kopp said, "I trust them to find an approach that's good for St. Paul."

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109