The handling of school security continues to evolve in St. Paul Public Schools with staff members shifting their focus from enforcement to building relationships with students.
On Tuesday night, the school board is being asked to sign off on a new contract for school resource officers, or SROs, a thorny issue both locally and nationally.
Laura Olson, the district’s security and emergency management director, recently set the stage for the board’s action by describing the officers as an integral part of a team that she envisions will include dozens of student-friendly staffers trained to de-escalate conflicts and tense situations.
A pilot of sorts is underway at Como Park Senior High School. There, an educational assistant and a community support liaison work primarily with ninth- and 10th-graders to head off fights and aggressive behavior, while the school’s resource officer has instituted an open-door policy for kids wanting to talk.
“It is a model that I do think will set St. Paul apart,” Olson told board members during a presentation this month.
Board Member Steve Marchese, who three years ago questioned whether officers should be in the schools, told Olson he was encouraged to see the seven SROs and their annual contract placed in a broader context, and with roles defined as being part of a team rather than working “in a silo.”
St. Paul board members long have complained about the disparities in the one-year contracts with St. Paul police, and the proposal awaiting board approval calls for the district to cover 90% of salary costs — not to exceed $775,000.
The police department is providing an additional half-time resource officer and a full-time sergeant, Olson said.
The district has made strides in softening the role of resource officers as enforcers by having them find ways to avoid arresting students.
In 2018-19, officers made 41 arrests, up from 34 in 2017-18, with 15 students ultimately being charged, Olson said. She did not have court data from previous years. While the number of arrests increased in 2018-19, it was a sharp drop from the 180 to 209 arrests reported during the 2011-12 and 2013-14 school years.
The district also broke down data from a recent Minnesota student survey showing that 94% of all district ninth-graders and 97% of all district 11th-graders who responded said they thought it was a good idea to have police officers in their schools.
Black students offered nearly the same levels of support, with 89% of ninth-graders and 93% of 11th-graders saying the officers were a good idea.
When she gave her presentation, Olson did not have the number of students who took part in the survey. Information supplied by the district since then puts the total number of 11th-graders, for example, saying they agreed with having officers at 356 students, and the number of black 11th-graders who replied in the affirmative at 54 students.
Board Member Jeanelle Foster reminded officials then it was essential that all student groups be accurately reflected in district data.
Olson said the district plans to do a survey of its own by the end of the school year, and steps will be taken to ensure that more students respond.