Do Cops Belong in Schools? Minneapolis Tragedy Prompts a Hard Look at School Police
Just eight days after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man, the school board there voted to cut ties with the city police department, fulfilling a long-time goal of activists.
As mass protests continued nationwide over police brutality, activists in other cities—including Chicago and Denver—hope the demonstrations will cause their districts to review their own agreements with local law enforcement agencies, and to consider how those relationships can disproportionately affect students of color.
Young people’s very first interactions with law enforcement increasingly occur at schools. Such interactions can be positive, but they can also be a vulnerable child’s first step into the labyrinth of the criminal justice system. And federal data show black students are more likely to be arrested or referred to law enforcement than their peers.
The Minneapolis school board’s unanimous June 2 vote was explicitly tied to Floyd’s death, which was captured in a gruesome viral video. In the video, the 46-year-old Floyd is heard saying “I can’t breathe” as an officer presses a knee into his neck.
The vote came the same day the state launched a civil rights probe into the city’s police department, and the same week several other organizations, including the University of Minnesota, opted to end their agreements with the agency. Under a $1.1 million annual contract with police, 14 city police officers worked as school resource officers for the district.
“Recent actions of officers in the Minneapolis Police Department run directly counter to the values the district seeks in partners,” the resolution reads. “The district has decided the current contract and any continuing contract for services with the Minneapolis Police Department do not align with the priorities of the district’s equity and social emotional learning goals.”
“I firmly believe that it is completely unnatural to have police in schools,” board member Kim Caprini said before the vote.
Already school board members and administrators in a handful of other districts, including neighboring St. Paul, Portland, Ore., and the nearly 90,000-student Denver district, have urged new discussions about their agreements with local law enforcement.
Youth activists in other cities, like Chicago, said they view the Minneapolis vote as a powerful sign that the changes they have pushed for are possible.
“I feel like we can be the next big city that’s moving and mobilizing,” said Lanessa Young, a senior at Chicago’s Hyde Park Academy who has worked with a coalition of youth organizations to push for the end of school policing. “I felt like if they could do it, we could do it.”
But the Minneapolis district’s discussion also underscored the challenges of replacing school police with alternative safety plans. The board rejected several amendments that would have committed the district to increasing mental health resources, restorative justice practices, and community partnerships—punting the safety conversation down the road a little longer.
Eric Moore, Minneapolis’ chief of accountability, research, and equity, said in an interview with Education Week that ending the police contract is only a first step. Under his oversight, a climate framework steering committee will be developing a set of “belief statements” about the values that they want security officers to adhere to.
“You’ve eliminated the SRO position, but you still have to have [security] positions at the schools,” Moore said. “And I think it’s naive to think that those adults have not also been influenced by racism, white supremacist thought, issues of power and race. Whatever adult you bring in to support our students, they have to be made aware of concepts of power and privilege.”
But the decision wasn’t without some mixed emotions. Prior survey data showed that SROs were generally well-regarded among students in the district, and a handful of parents and students called on the board not to end the contract, citing the work of a beloved SRO and football coach at the city’s North High School.
That, school safety experts say, is partly why the work is so difficult. From the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School onward, parents are often among those who have advocated for more police, rather than fewer, as part of an overall school safety plan. Two mass school shootings in 2018—in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas—reignited calls to install additional police or other armed personnel in schools.
Following those shootings, public concern about student safety—and demands for new school safety measures—surged, surveys showed.
“It’s important for people to re-examine the policing role, because we have a tension here: People want police in schools for safety,” said Anthony Petrosino, the director of the justice and prevention research center at WestEd, a nonprofit education research organization. “But is it creating more harm than good? Is there a way to structure this relationship so it’s helping students and staff?”
By the Numbers
In 2017-18, 58 percent of American schools reported having a sworn law enforcement officer on campus at least once a week, a majority of them as SROs. Most staff their schools with officers through cooperative agreements with local law enforcement agencies, and they sometimes have limited input in the officers’ selection, placement, and training.
Despite having a theoretically different role than beat cops, officers that work in schools share many features. Among schools that employ them, such police almost always carry firearms and physical restraints, such as stun guns or handcuffs, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
Federal data also show that school-based officers are far more common in schools where more than half of students are nonwhite. Some research links the presence of police to higher rates of entry into the criminal justice system in what’s called the “school to prison pipeline.”
Black students made up 15 percent of U.S. K-12 students, but 31 percent of those arrested or referred to law enforcement at school in 2015-16, according to the most recent federal data.
Racial justice organizations, which have long pushed for removing police from schools, hope to capture the broad public interest in protests over Floyd’s death, challenging demonstrators to consider law enforcement’s role in all settings, including schools.
“If black communities don’t trust police on the streets, they shouldn’t trust them in school hallways,” said Judith Browne Dianis, the executive director of Advancement Project, which runs a national campaign to end school policing. “We need to be thinking about alternatives to school safety so that children can feel safe and can learn in an environment that is safe for them to thrive. Police undercut that culture.”
Meanwhile, there’s little empirical research directly connecting the presence of officers to improved school safety or climate.
Some cities, like Miami and Atlanta, have their own police forces they directly control. But their recruits still generally go through the police academy, and it’s unclear whether their attitudes or approaches to the job differ significantly from other law enforcement professionals.
For Petrosino, the question comes down to a clash of cultures—police typically have the authority to arrest students and may be viewed as overly punitive, and that runs up against what should be the supportive, nurturing culture in schools. Which one dominates? Can they be reconciled?
While the discussion about school police has sometimes waned from public view in recent years, it has picked up steam with students, Browne Dianis said. In the last few years, local organizations involved in the Advancement Project’s school police campaign have grown from 10 to 30.
Now, those organizations hope fresh conversations about racial justice—and an increased awareness of concerns about policing—will add momentum to their efforts.
“People need to understand that the police who are in schools are the same police who are on the streets,” Browne Dianis said. “They come from the same police department, they get the same training, they report to the same chief. We cannot decouple them.”
In Denver, school board member Tay Anderson proposed ending a contract with the Denver police department and using the money to hire nurses and school counselors instead.
“Yesterday the children I represent on the Denver School Board were under attack,” Anderson tweeted, recounting the use of tear gas against protesters, including students on Denver streets. “I can’t get their screams out of my head or seeing four black girls running out of the smoke coughing, all because they wanted to proclaim that #BlackLivesMatter.” In Chicago, a city with a troubled history of police reform, the pressure is also heating up.
Last year, the Chicago district entered a new $33 million agreement with its police force requiring special training for SROs, specifying that they should not be involved in routine discipline matters, and giving schools the decision whether to employ them at all. That school police agreement was a stipulation of a federal consent decree that followed the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black teen, by Chicago police.
Chicago’s comment period on its new SRO policy expired last week just as protests were surging, and several youth-led movements took that opportunity—and the attention on heavy-handed police tactics during the protests—to call for ending the program altogether.
“Over the past couple of days, the Chicago Police Department has acted with utter impunity across the entire city, brutalizing young innocent black and brown kids protesting the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” wrote Chicago students involved in the #policefreeschools campaign. “But this comes to no surprise to us. Black and brown kids know all too well that the cops violently assaulting protesters are the same ones placed in our school hallways, assaulting and racially profiling us.”
Young, the Hyde Park student, has been at a protest every day since the demonstrations started. Her school has 13 officers in addition to security guards, she said, and she’s seen them treat students “like grown adults” while addressing their misbehavior.
Even some longstanding holdouts are coming around. The Chicago Teachers Union, which as recently as 2016 took a conciliatory tone towards school policing, is now joining the call for the district to cut its ties with the city police and use the funding for counseling and other services.
The St. Paul., Minn., board also announced it will review its SRO contract this month and could alter it as early as June 23. If it, too, decides to cancel its contract, that would mark a major departure from past practice in a district marked by longstanding tensions among students, teachers, and SROs on policing in schools.
In Oregon, Portland Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said June 4 that his district, the largest in the state, would discontinue the use of city officers in its schools just a year after an intense debate on the issue.
Meanwhile, national education organizations have issued calls for schools around the country to think critically about school policing.
After the Minneapolis vote, the National Association of Secondary School Principals called on school leaders “to build our own cultural competence to recognize and address the racial disparities in our discipline policies and our academic systems, and in our use of school resource officers.”
The Next Pandemic
To an extent, there is an opportunity for districts to think about safety in much broader terms. The coronavirus pandemic has forced districts to worry about cybersecurity, protecting students’ personal information, and guarding against unwelcome intrusions into video learning platforms, rather than metal detectors and locker searches.
School budgets are also likely to be severely stressed in coming months, due to precipitous decreases in state revenue. SROs are among those, along with substitute teachers, support personnel, and paraprofessionals, whose positions could be eliminated to make ends meet.
Student groups, like those in Chicago, have encouraged their school boards to redirect spending toward other priorities, like school counselors and one-on-one computing technology.
Nationwide, 1.7 million students attended schools that had police but no school counselors in the 2015-16 school year, according to a March 2019 ACLU analysis of federal civil rights data. Three million students attended schools with police but no nurses.
Marlenne Garcia, a senior at Chicago’s John Hancock High School who is involved in the #policefreeschools campaign, said students notice when their peers from wealthy suburbs go to schools that have fewer officers and better libraries and gyms.
“What’s happening right now is really affecting the way people look at police,” Garcia said.
Short of eliminating police, schools can also take interim steps, some racial justice groups say: allowing educators a say over how officers are selected, requiring special training beyond what’s mandated for beat officers on the street, and creating agreements that limit officers’ role in routine school discipline, as cities like New York have recently done.
These demands often resurface after students circulate viral cellphone videos, like the violent arrest of a South Carolina girl who was dragged from her desk by a school officer in 2015 after she refused to surrender her cellphone during class.
Among schools with a law enforcement presence in 2017-18, 55 percent said officers’ role in student discipline was outlined in a formal agreement, federal data show. Fifty-six percent said their agreement with school police included language about making arrests on school grounds.
Activists in Minnesota hope the district’s decision can spark change elsewhere, said Kenneth Eban, the Twin Cities organizing director for Our Turn, an education equity organization.
“We are given a false option every time we vote on this contract,” Eban said. “It’s either we have officers and we have safety or we don’t have officers and we don’t have safety.”
“It is frustrating that it took nights of uprising, the brutal murder of George Floyd, for so many people to finally get on board with what students have been demanding,” Eban said.
“Why did it take this for power brokers and the board to see that this is a decision they need to make, as opposed to just listening to their students who have demanded this for years?”
Vol. 39, Issue 35, Pages 1, 4-5Published in Print: June 10, 2020, as A Tragic Killing in Minneapolis Prompts Districts to Take a Harder Look at School Police