Three years into life without school resource officers, St. Paul Public Schools has upped deployment of its student-friendly liaisons and embarked on an effort to reduce violence in its secondary schools.
Thirty-eight school support liaisons now walk hallways and drive streets in the state's second-largest district — more than twice as many as a year ago.
Nearly 4 out of 5 are people of color, and all have an eye toward building relationships with students, many of whom have tipped liaisons to potential trouble, Laura Olson, the district's security and emergency management director, told school board members during a presentation Tuesday.
The board also heard via video from liaison Kehinde Olafeso, a native of Nigeria who graduated from Harding High School. He said liaisons make clear to students they will be held accountable for bad decisions. But, he said, adults also know a lot is happening in the community and that many kids are facing trauma.
"It is easy to assume something about a student without knowing who they truly are — and to me it's something we don't need," Olafeso said. "It is our job to do the work and get to know who they are so that we can better serve them."
St. Paul cut ties with school resource officers, known as SROs, in the racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd. Olson's vision had been to supplement SROs with liaisons and, in turn, curb the use of contract security guards. Now, however, liaisons are the key to in-school security efforts. There are no guns, but they do carry pepper spray and handcuffs.
The number of contract security guards has dropped from 27 in 2020-21 — the first year the liaisons came aboard — to three this school year.
Olson said that of the 38 liaisons, 28 are men and 10 are women, adding: "The next time I sit before you, I'd like to have that female number higher."
In Minneapolis, the school board is expected this month to consider a budget amendment that would include $1.4 million in "safety and security enhancements" — a response to what school leaders say are heightened concerns about student safety.
St. Paul has received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for a three-year project aimed at preventing and reducing school violence by better understanding its root causes, according to a document announcing the award.
Again, the program hinges on relationships with students, Olson said.
"We know rarely do acts of violence happen randomly. We know there's many touchpoints leading up to that particular act," she told board members. "So, we want to get in front of that and identify our early warning signs, get the right people to the table, wrapping around our students, before they take that action."
The document cites an increase in the "prevalence and seriousness" of violent incidents in St. Paul schools in 2021-22 but did not give specifics.
In the project's first year, which began Oct. 1, the district plans to study data, interview students, staff and families, and develop protocols to help "students in crisis" get the help they need before they harm themselves or others, Olson said.
Families will be part of the work, and the district will keep close watch on results.
"So often it's a one-and-done: 'We created this plan, and now John is good,' " Olson said. "Well, no, we need to continually circle back with the students to find out if we're making the advances that we had suggested."
Work with individual students will be piloted at one middle school and one high school in 2023-24, followed by an additional four middle schools and four high schools in 2024-25.
"Beyond that, we will be expanding based on what we learn," Olson said.
Board Chair Jim Vue said he was encouraged that the district would be digging deep into school level data. As a parent, he said, he knows kids in some buildings are more prone to acting out at certain times of the day than others. The research should help schools get ahead of any such issues that arise, he said.