After George Floyd, Some School Districts Cut Ties With Police

By: - June 10, 2020 12:00 am

Denver Board of Education Secretary Tay Anderson directs participants during a protest in downtown Denver over the death of George Floyd. Anderson has sponsored a resolution to remove Denver police officers from city schools. David Zalubowski/The Associated Press

Some school leaders want to replace the armed officers who patrol school hallways with nurses, counselors or unarmed guards — who, they say, can help keep students safe without reminding them of police officers who have killed George Floyd and other unarmed black people.

The Minneapolis Board of Education and the school superintendent of Portland, Oregon, both announced last week that they’ll no longer hire police officers. Denver is poised to follow, and student protesters are calling for similar changes from Phoenix to Chicago amid nationwide anti-racism protests and, increasingly, calls to reduce the funding and responsibilities of police departments.

In Minneapolis — where Floyd died — the move to eliminate cops in schools could be the first of many changes to policing in the city. City Council members now want to dismantle the city police department, though they haven’t said what would replace it.

While district leaders for years had debated the merits of having police in schools, prodded by students upset about police brutality and convinced the program wasn’t worth the cost, Floyd’s death intensified the debate, said Nathaniel Genene, a rising Washburn High School senior and student representative on the Minneapolis Board of Education.

“It became a question of our morals,” Genene said, “and what we value, and where we put our money.”

The unanimous vote to end the district’s $1.1 million contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, which paid for 14 officers known as school resource officers, wasn’t spurred by any personnel problems, school board leaders say.

“This was not a statement about any school resource officer that we currently have or had had working in our schools in the past,” said School Board Chair Kim Ellison.

Supporters of assigning police officers to schools say they fear city leaders are making rash decisions that will leave schools less safe and worsen police-community relations.

“Are we doing it for symbolic reasons? Are we doing it for political reasons?” asked Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based school security consulting firm. (He has no relation to President Donald Trump.) “Or are we doing it for school safety practice reasons?”

It’s not clear whether school resource officers, often known as SROs, improve school safety, said Matthew Mayer, an associate professor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education who studies school violence prevention.     

“We don’t have rigorous, causal evidence proving that SROs make schools safer,” he said. “We just don’t.”

Surveys show that parents and school staff feel safer when there’s a police officer at school, Mayer said, but student opinion is mixed. Some studies have shown a relationship between a police presence and fewer fights at school and fewer instances of students bringing weapons to school, as well as increased arrests of students suspected of drug crimes. There’s no evidence that having a police officer on campus prevents mass shootings, he said.

Civil rights groups argue that a police presence can funnel black students into the criminal justice system.

About 31% of the students arrested on public school grounds or after a school official reported them to police were black, according to the latest U.S. Education Department statistics for the 2015-16 academic year, the most recent numbers available. Black students made up 15% of the public school population that year.

Floyd’s death, caused by a police officer kneeling on his neck, has underscored why black people don’t feel safe around the police, said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of Advancement Project, a national civil rights group.

“This has opened up an assessment and a conversation about the relationship between schools and police,” Dianis said, “and a recognition that for young people to thrive and to learn, they can’t feel the threatening presence of the police in the school building.”

Supporters of school resource officers, however, say they can build relationships with students that make arrests less likely, as well as give young people someone to turn to if they’re a victim of a crime or know of a school safety threat, such as a student with a gun.

“A good school resource officer will tell you that they do much more in preventing [crime] than they do in arresting,” Trump said.  

Such officers also build trust between the police department and the community, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, a Hoover, Alabama-based nonprofit. “The No. 1 goal that we teach … is to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth.”

A sworn law enforcement officer can be found at almost half of public schools and 70% of high schools at least once a week, a 2017-18 Education Department survey found. Federal grants help schools hire such officers. While some districts hire city police, as Minneapolis does, others hire and train their own police officers.

Well-trained school resource officers break up fights, deter trespassers and perform other duties to keep the peace, Trump and Canady said. They also serve as guest speakers, counselors and mentors.

Disbanding school resource officer programs would be “a tragic mistake,” said Don Bridges, who splits his time as a school resource officer among 10 Baltimore County elementary schools and has worked within the county program since it started in 1998. He’s also the immediate past president of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Bridges said he and other school resource officers in the district build relationships with students from an early age.

“I can’t tell you how many times we have — through good relationships with our kids — we have been able to stop situations from happening,” Bridges said. He didn’t give an example, but he did say that generally speaking, if a student brings a weapon to school, other students will know about it before teachers or administrators do.

Still, misconduct by school resource officers has made headlines in recent years. Take the South Carolina officer who flipped a girl out of her chair for refusing to give up her cellphone, or the Florida officers who handcuffed and arrested black elementary schoolers, ages 6 and 7, who had temper tantrums.

Trump said such cases often illustrate a breakdown in communication between officers and school administrators, rather than an aggressive officer.

Getting rid of school resource officers doesn’t mean schools won’t have any security, said Denver Board of Education Secretary Tay Anderson, a co-sponsor of a resolution to end the district’s contract with police, which places 18 officers in city schools.

“We’ll still have safety officers, but they won’t be armed,” he said, and they won’t be able to issue citations or make arrests. When an armed response is necessary, such as in the case of a shooting or other crime happening on campus, Anderson said, teachers and school administrators can call 911.

“When we need them,” he said of the police, “we’ll call them.”

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association, the district teachers’ union, backs Anderson’s resolution. The school board is scheduled to vote on it this week. 

In Minneapolis, students overwhelmingly supported the move to end the partnership with the city police department, Genene said. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers also backed the change.

About 1,700 people responded in three days to an online survey Genene created to gather student feedback on the school board resolution, he said. Between 80% and 90% of current Minneapolis Public School students who responded wanted an end to school resource officers, he said.

Survey respondents said that rather than hiring armed, uniformed police officers, the district should hire more counselors, social workers and nonwhite teachers and respond to disputes by convening restorative justice meetings among the victim, offender and wider community.

Beatrix Delcarmen, 20, pressured administrators to end the school resource officer program in Minneapolis Public Schools as a student at South High School. “For a lot of students, personally, it is a safety thing — they don’t feel safe walking through their halls,” she said. Seeing a police officer with a gun can remind students of traumatic experiences, she said.

The officer who patrolled her school didn’t have much of a relationship with students, she said. “I never really got a sense of who that police officer was, he wasn’t from our community, I don’t think I even knew his name.”

Meanwhile, many of the school’s regular security staff had graduated from South High, she said. “That, I felt, was really productive, because we all knew them, and we all interacted with them every day.”

The Minneapolis Police Department issued a statement after the school board vote saying it will continue to help the district. “We will continue to work in cooperation with the Minneapolis Public Schools regarding safety and security issues,” Deputy Police Chief Erick Fors said. 

School resource officers associated with the department will be reassigned, said John Elder, public information officer.

The school board has asked Superintendent Ed Graff to come up with a new school safety plan by Aug. 18.

At least one Minneapolis high school wants to keep its school resource officer. North Community High School’s officer, Charles Adams Jr., also serves as its football coach and has been a beloved community member for years.

“He has done more things than so many of you will ever know,” Principal Mauri Friestleben said in a video posted to the school’s Facebook page. “He has kept kids off the books. He has stopped things before they can get bigger. He has been a life-changer for students and staff and the community.”

Friestleben declined a Stateline request for an interview. Adams could not be reached for comment by press time.

Another video on the school’s Facebook page captured statements North High students made ahead of the school board vote.

“Say something goes down at our school, and they have to call 911,” one student said, “first of all, they’re not going to be there as quickly as Officer Adams would, and secondly, a police officer such as the one who held his knee on George Floyd could show up at our school.”

Ellison, the school board chair, said there may be a way for the school to maintain its relationship with Adams. “I’m hoping we can include their school resource officer in a future plan,” she said.

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Sophie Quinton

Sophie Quinton writes about fiscal and economic policy for Stateline. Previously, she wrote for National Journal.