School Climate & Safety

A Fight to Build Trust With School Police

By Daarel Burnette II — February 01, 2017 14 min read
Toy Vixayvong, a school resource officer at Como Park High School in St. Paul, Minn., keeps an eye on students in the commons area as they move between classes late last year.
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To hear some teachers and students tell it, the St. Paul school system was out of control in the 2015-16 school year, and in dire need of action.

Fights broke out in classrooms and high school hallways. Students assaulted staff members. School police officers arrested students for the slightest offenses and treated them with gross disrespect.

Faced with student walkouts, a threatened teachers’ strike, and the firing of its longtime superintendent, the 38,000-student district has since rolled out measures aimed at ensuring the safety of staff and students and creating an environment conducive to learning.

But a review of several years of police, school, and county attorney data suggests a more temperate climate—and makes clear just how hard it is to reconcile perception and reality in the realm of school safety and student-police interactions.

Between 2011 and 2016, the number of high school fights in the district that involved the intervention of a police officer dropped by half. The number of student arrests during that time declined to 56 in 2016 from 342 in 2011. For several years, there were no expulsions, but in 2015-16, the district expelled five students. Out-of-school suspensions rose 21 percent last school year from the year before. And formal charges brought by authorities against students who assaulted staff members in a workforce of 5,300 have fluctuated slightly, from a high of 18 in 2013 to a low of seven in 2014.

“Perception becomes reality,” said John Thein, the district’s interim superintendent. “If people feel safe, feel secure, then they are safe and they are secure.”

‘Kids Need to Trust You’

Getting the balance right is tough even for a school system where all parties recognize the issue and seem intent on addressing it.

The hurdles for St. Paul are long-standing and systemic: severe budget cuts in recent years; a hyperconcentration of students in poverty in certain schools; distrust between the police and diverse minority communities; and street violence that sometimes intrudes into the schools. Like many other big-city districts, St. Paul also has been losing students to charter schools and nearby districts. Between 2015-16 and the current school year, the district lost 600 students.

At the same time, St. Paul has what national school security experts say are the right tools to cope with, and even conquer, those challenges. For one thing, administrators here acknowledge the security needs of both students and staff, and have taken steps in recent years to build trust and bolster a safe school climate that includes keeping police on the schools beat. Local taxpayers pay about $1 million a year on school security.

“I think St. Paul schools have always been ahead of the curve when it comes to making sure school security is about building relationships rather than a heavy-handed approach,” said Laura Olson, the director of the district’s office of security and emergency management. “But it’s not always smooth. It’s been a tough year for both the community and for law enforcement. ... What we’ve tried to do is show that what we’re doing is different and that school police officers are in their positions for the right reasons.”

One example: the corps of nine specially trained school resource officers—employees of the St. Paul Police Department—who work hand in hand with administrators in the schools where they are assigned. Last year, the school system forged a new memorandum of understanding with the St. Paul police department detailing the steps administrators must take to handle a conflict before a student faces law-enforcement action. The school resource officers are each visibly armed with a handgun and a taser.

At St. Paul’s Como Park High School, a school that has especially struggled this past year with student violence and a racially hostile culture, administrators and police have pursued one of the city’s most aggressive reform efforts in recent months. The changes were palpable during a recent visit.

“Kids need to trust you,” said Toy Vixayvong, a former FBI agent with a teenage son and a daughter of his own who is a school resource officer at Como. Vixayvong, who is Lao, is especially sensitive to how students of color see him. (A third of the district’s enrollment is Asian-American.) He paused to fist-bump a student who was back at school after a long stretch at the local juvenile-detention center.

“They need to know you’re here for them,” he said, “and not here to arrest them.”

Still, black students in particular say the police officers working in St. Paul schools can be intimidating, reclusive, and combative.

“I don’t want to be surrounded by them in my school, in a place where I’m supposed to feel safe,” said Makkah Abdur Salaam, a 17-year-old senior at Central High School, a school three miles from Como.

Saffiyah Al’Aziz Muhammad, a 17-year-old senior and a third-generation student at Central, was even more blunt: “They look at kids of color like we’re all animals or some type of criminal.”

Violent Incidents Vex District Leaders

St. Paul administrators for years have wrestled with racial disparities in suspensions, expulsions, and referrals to police, all outcomes that can cause students to miss classes and increase their likelihood of dropping out of school.

In 2013-14, the district referred 950 students to police. Of those, 62 percent were black, even though only 29 percent of students in the district were African-American, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of the most recent federal civil rights data.

Under Valeria Silva, the former superintendent, the city in 2011 scrapped its expensive and historic busing and magnet programs and zoned many of the district’s students back to their neighborhood schools, where, she argued, they would get more community support. The new school zones concentrated racial and economic groups in several schools, administrators say.

At the same time, the district launched a number of school climate initiatives and efforts to close the achievement gap between minority students and their white peers.

For example, the district uses a strategy known as “positive behavioral interventions and support,” which includes staff members’ scrutiny of suspensions and expulsions. In professional-development courses, teachers explore their racial biases. And as part of a citywide initiative that started five years ago, school police stopped arresting students for “disorderly conduct,” a nebulous infraction that disproportionately affected black students.

Then, last school year, things seemed to unravel.

Among a series of widely publicized violent incidents—some of which were caught on cellphone videos and shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media—two white high school teachers were hospitalized after being beaten up by black students.

In December 2015, amid heated contract negotiations, the district’s 3,000 teachers threatened to strike, and about 2,700 community members petitioned to have Silva fired for what they described as the “rapidly downward spiral” of St. Paul’s schools and an uptick in violence toward students and teachers.

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SOURCE: Education Week Research Center original analysis of Civil Rights Data Collection, 2017

One of the teachers hospitalized, a long-standing Central High School teacher who said he had been punched, choked, and suffered a traumatic brain injury, sued. A middle school teacher won a $75,000 settlement for what she described in court papers as a year of sexual harassment and physical abuse by students.

Then, last May, a white school resource officer at Central High School cornered, pepper-sprayed, and arrested for trespassing a black student who had previously attended the school. A video of the incident went viral, and in response, dozens of students from Central staged a walkout, demanding at the mayor’s office that administrators overhaul and “demilitarize” the district’s nine-member school-based police force.

Black Lives Matter activists also got involved, and repeatedly clashed with union members during board meetings over the role of school police officers. Black community members said teachers were exaggerating the violence, while teachers said they were tired of feeling threatened by students and afraid they’d be called racist if they said so.

In June, in the wake of the upheaval, Silva was fired. Her separation agreement cost the district, already in severe financial distress, $787,500.

Changing How Police Work in Schools

Since then, administrators have scrambled to press the reset button.

In July, they reconstituted their formal agreement with the city police department to clarify officers’ duties. They replaced two school resource officers, changed their uniforms to include less formal, polo-style shirts, and redesigned their professional development. The rules of engagement between officers and students were even more clearly defined.

On the teacher side, the most recent teachers’ contract requires that the district invest $4.5 million more in improving school climate, including instituting a restorative-justice program for students and teachers as an alternative to traditional forms of discipline.

But while these changes were sowing some cautious optimism among district leaders, they were also taking place amid the black community’s historically rocky relationship with police.

That tension erupted into community outrage in the wake of the police shooting death last June of Philando Castile, a Central High alumnus and an elementary school cafeteria manager. His fatal shooting in a St. Paul suburb, broadcast live on Facebook by his girlfriend, led to weeks of protests. The tension spilled over into the schools.

Administrators, teachers, and students are now actively debating whether the district’s efforts to remake school security have gone too far or not far enough. They’re talking about what role, if any, the district’s school resource officers should play in keeping schools safe.

Black high school students said in a districtwide survey released in June that they don’t see school resource officers as trusted adults they can turn to for help. They complained that their interactions with police were mostly negative, and questioned why those officers carry guns or are in schools at all.

Laura Olson, the security director for the St. Paul school district, observes the activity of one city school from a security monitoring room at the district's administration building.

Teachers’ union officials agree in principle that teachers shouldn’t burden school police officers with basic classroom management, such as dealing with an unruly student. But the union also says the district isn’t providing enough counselors, school nurses, or social workers to handle the social ills that plague the schools.

“We’ve got to start to fight for supports in the classroom,” said Nick Faber, the vice president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. “And not short-term things, but long-term things where both the students’ and the teachers’ voices are heard so we can start to understand and gain perspective from each other.”

School board member Mary Vanderwert said former Superintendent Silva pushed an agenda to address inequities at a time of dramatic demographic shifts, with few resources provided to teachers. That included a move toward greater inclusion of special education students into regular education classrooms, which teachers in the course of contract negotiations described as chaotic and disruptive.

“It was done quickly, and it was not well-received,” said Vanderwert.

Silva, in subsequent interviews, has said she doesn’t regret forcing the district to focus on disparities. (Education Week profiled Silva in 2013 in its annual Leaders To Learn From report, highlighting her work with St. Paul’s English-learners.)

While arrests went down last school year, suspensions for black students—but not for white students—went up, according to the district’s own data. Between 2014-15 and 2015-16, the total number of students suspended increased by 21 percent, amounting to more than 750 additional suspensions. The number of black students suspended increased by 26 percent, meaning that there were almost 700 more black student suspensions in 2015-16 than in the previous year.

Improving the Student-Police Relationship?

At Como Park High School, swaddled in a hilly, middle-class neighborhood lined with Craftsman-style homes, administrators have taken some of the most aggressive steps to improve relations between teachers and students and between students and police officers.

With about 1,300 students, Como’s student body has shifted over the past decade from majority-white to majority-minority this year. The school is now composed mostly of black, immigrant, and low-income students pulled from some of the city’s most disparate communities.

Disputes between teen gangs in St. Paul’s downtown skyways and on social media sites sometimes spill into classrooms at Como and other schools, say teachers, who complain about a lack of backup from the administration.

And tensions have been fueled by racially inflammatory remarks, including some from a former Como Park High teacher who was suspended without pay for 10 days last year for blog posts that mocked black students and alluded to the Ku Klux Klan.

Toy Vixayvong, a former FBI agent who is now a school resource officer at Como Park High, is especially attuned to how students of color perceive his role in the school. "They need to know you're here for them," he said, "and not to arrest them."

To help alleviate tensions, Como Park High teachers meet confidentially to discuss frankly their concerns about issues including safety and improving their interactions with students. Vixayvong, the school resource officer assigned there, frequents classrooms to discuss his role.

According to the new agreement a “student advocate,” such as a teacher, counselor, or parent, must be present before a student is arrested, and officers must go through de-escalation training in how to deal with conflicts, among other measures.

Providing help to Vixayvong are several private security guards who staff the front desk at Como and “community ambassadors,” mostly men from St. Paul’s black community, who monitor the hallways and keep up with local happenings.

Leading the effort at Como Park High is Principal Theresa Neal, who before coming to the school in 2014, ran the school that serves youth in a local juvenile-detention center. In 2007, her husband, Howard Porter, a former player for the Chicago Bulls basketball team, was beaten to death with a pipe by a young black man during a botched robbery. His murder sealed her passion for helping young black men get their lives on track.

Neal, a St. Paul native, says she knows well how drugs and violence weave in and out of students’ home lives and how St. Paul’s government has long struggled to provide minority communities with basic social services. She also understands that Como’s teachers are being asked to serve a population mix different from the student body of a few years ago, and to do it as demands to improve test scores and to close achievement gaps increase.

“You can’t exclude safety and security from education,” Neal said. “We have to be a conducive place for teaching and learning.”

Under her watch, arrests at Como Park High declined from 52 in 2014 to just one last year, and there were no calls to the city police department to intervene in fights last year.

Still, during a teacher-development training session late last year, school counselor Emily Jacobson said that while the school culture had begun to improve, teachers and other staff members needed to be doing more to support students.

Montrell Williams, a "community ambassador" at Como Park High School, asks to see students' hall passes late last year. Williams helps supports security in the school by monitoring hallways and keeping up with local happenings outside of the school that could impact students while they're on campus.

“You guys have been a tremendous resource to us, but I want to be a better resource for these kids, too,” Jacobson said to Vixayvong, the school resource officer. “What can we do with these kids sitting at the back of the classroom?”

Students Arrests Are ‘Absolutely Last Resort’

And while St. Paul school officials focus intently on improving school safety and climate, they’re called upon to cope with community tensions and the unpredictable.

The week of Education Week’s visit, the Ramsey County attorney announced manslaughter charges against the police officer who killed Castile, known here as Mr. Phil. Activists that night marched to J.J. Hill Montessori School, where he worked for 14 years as a cafeteria manager.

That same week, Principal Neal placed on administrative leave a Como Park High teacher after he declared to his class that he had voted for Donald Trump for president, didn’t support the Black Lives Matter movement and was afraid of black people.

Then, just a mile from Como, a .38-caliber revolver that a child had brought to Crossroads Elementary School went off in a 3rd grade classroom full of students. Nobody was hurt, but the incident once again thrust the school system’s security hurdles back into the news.

At a school board meeting last week, administrators presented a promising progress report. They told board members that student arrests in the first quarter of the current school year fell to just one, down from 21 during the same period last school year. Students caught carrying small amounts of alcohol or marijuana were sent home, sometimes escorted personally by a school police officer.

“Arrest is now an absolutely last resort,” said Olson, the district’s security director.

Still, the vast majority of students being handcuffed, pepper-sprayed, and confronted by school police this school year, as well as last year were black.

Board member John Brodrick warned that the district’s policies could prevent officers from being “assertive enough to protect our students.”

With another budget deficit looming, some board members are likely to question spending so much money on the district’s policing program.

Board member Chue Vue is one who thinks spending on police is not worth it, and, he points out, is in conflict with the mission of public schools.

“Having police in a school,” Vue said, “is just odd.”

Research Analyst Alex Harwin and Correspondent Kavitha Cardoza contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as Fighting to Build Trust in St. Paul


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