After a rocky end to the 2015-16 school year, the St. Paul School District is tackling the controversy surrounding school resource officers (sworn law enforcement officers, also called SROs) by moving to ensure that police have a more positive presence in the schools.
Traditional uniforms are to be replaced by light-blue polo shirts, and if an officer arrests a student, efforts are to be made to have a school administrator present until the student is put in a squad car.
The steps are among several to be taken under a new $984,499 contract approved Tuesday that will guide the deployment and activities of nine resource officers serving the state’s second-largest district in 2016-17.
Questions about cops in schools have drawn attention in the Minneapolis and Rochester school districts, too. But St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) became a focal point for concern when video of a white officer’s forceful arrest of a black student at Central High in May sparked outrage on social media.
Central’s Pan-African Student Union helped lead a protest march to City Hall, and school Board Member Steve Marchese questioned what he termed “the continued wisdom of SROs in our schools.”
Tuesday’s vote on the annual police contract came two months later than usual, and just two weeks before the start of the school year. Outside voices weighing in on the issue have included social-justice advocates from the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP, Advocates for SPPS Youth and Families, and the SPPS Student Engagement and Advancement Board.
Marchese said the contract was strengthened by that outside involvement. But he and fellow board member John Brodrick said the district should explore a fairer split of program costs in the future. Currently, the district covers $884,499 of the contract’s costs, with the city responsible for the remaining $100,000.
The push to improve relationships and increase accountability when arrests are made and force is used came as the district’s principals stated that having no officers could make their buildings less safe.
Police say it is vital to have officers engage with students in what has become a critical time for police-community relations.
More visible, accountable
At a school board meeting in July outlining the proposed new measures, Deputy Chief Paul Iovino noted that it was important to have SROs on hand to prevent or respond to violence and to familiarize themselves with an individual student’s needs and personal circumstances.
Among the measures:
• Officers will hold monthly meetings with students and staff on school climate and other concerns.
• Data will be collected regarding the number and type of police contacts in the schools.
• Resource officers will strive to be more visible and more positive in their interactions with students.
• Officers will submit monthly activity reports that document proactive work as well as any physical contact they’ve had with students.
Police spokesman Steve Linders said Tuesday that the department agreed that “providing more opportunities for students to get to know their SROs is a wonderful idea.” He added that the officer involved in the May arrest at Central High would not return to the school, but he did not know who will replace him.
In Minneapolis, the school board will vote in September on an extension of its SRO contract, which would expire in June. At last week’s board meeting, Chief of Schools Michael Thomas presented plans on engagement around school climate, including data collection.
Board Member Nelson Inz said at the board meeting that as a teacher, he’s seen SROs who haven’t worked in schools. But he also mentioned that there are positive examples.
“When it goes wrong, it’s a really bad thing, and so we need to make sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
Last week, the Rochester Post-Bulletin reported that the Rochester School District was reducing the number of school liaison officers from five to four — a change reported to be in line with an agreement between the district and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, stemming from a finding that students of color were being disproportionately disciplined.
Staff writer Beena Raghavendran contributed to this report.