School Climate & Safety

These Districts Defunded Their School Police. What Happened Next?

By Sarah Schwartz, Stephen Sawchuk, Eesha Pendharkar & Ileana Najarro — June 04, 2021 14 min read
Deering High School in Portland, Maine, one of two schools to have their SROs removed.

When activism following George Floyd’s murder began heating up last spring, schools around the country responded with statements of support for Black lives. But a handful of districts took swift and concrete action: They cut contracts with police departments, ending school resource officer programs that had long been both a mainstay of safety efforts and a source of contention.

Education Week compiled a database of changes to school policing plans undertaken by public school districts in the wake of Floyd’s killing. Since May 2020, at least 33 districts have eliminated school police officers, and others have shifted their relationships with security personnel.

To get a sense of the tensions and insights that have accompanied these shifts, Education Week reached out to nearly all of the communities that recently implemented major changes in school policing. What has changed since removing SROs? What hasn’t? Many did not return inquiries or refused to comment. The following vignettes are based on interviews with those who did respond—and paint a complicated, evolving portrait of the different ways this massive policy shift can play out in local contexts.

Columbus, Ohio: An end to school policing could be temporary

The example of Columbus, Ohio, illustrates one of advocates’ key fears amid their recent successes—that movements away from traditional school policing might be short-lived.

Amid the protests last summer, a group of current and former Columbus City Schools students successfully pushed the district to let its contract with the police department expire at the end of June 2020. The school board convened a working group made up of students, staff, and community members to make recommendations on school safety.

But the group dissolved after two heated meetings—and the activists, like Julia Allwein, a 2018 alumnus of the district and an organizer with a group called “CPD out of CCS,” which seeks to remove officers from schools, said that was because of the students’ pointed critiques. 

“They had to finally hear real student voice for two hours and they couldn’t handle it, so they shut down the task force,” said Allwein, who is white.

At the working group’s recommendation, the school board formed another committee to address student safety, which the student organizers said they have not been asked to join.

So while school resource officers aren’t employed in the buildings, the school board hasn’t ruled out the option of drawing up a new contract as part of its reimagined safety plan, the Columbus Dispatch reported. In the meantime, the district’s safety and security personnel—who are not police officers and are not armed—have remained posted in middle and high schools, a district spokeswoman said. 

“They had to finally hear real student voice for two hours and they couldn’t handle it, so they shut down the task force."

In an email, the spokeswoman said that the school board aims “to create safe student-centered innovative learning environments,” a goal tied to the district’s ongoing work on school safety.

The presence of uniformed security officials feels like a “repeat with a different name,” said Mercy Ayegbusi, an 18-year-old senior at Eastmoor Academy High School.

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Police officer outside of a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (image: Bastiaan Slabbers/iStock)

Amid the conflict, Ma’Khia Bryant was shot and killed by a Columbus police officer this spring. Her death further eroded the possibility of a positive relationship between students in the district and SROs, Ayegbusi said. Bryant, a 16-year-old Black girl, attended the city’s schools. 

“They’re expecting students to welcome cops back into their schools with open arms after that? No,” said Ayegbusi, who is Nigerian-American.

~Sarah Schwartz

Madison, Wis.: Restorative justice replaces school resource officers

When a community does decide to move in a new direction for school safety, what does it look like? The Madison, Wis., district offers some clues.

Under its budget for the 2021-22 school year—to be finalized at the end of this month—the district’s four SROs, one for each high school, will be replaced with four restorative justice coordinators. Their full-time duty will be ensuring educators are trained on the restorative justice approach, which emphasizes relationship-building over exclusionary discipline.

They’ll convene teams to help students work through interpersonal issues and they’ll design protocols for school safety in the absence of police. 

As experts in those strategies can attest, on-the-ground implementation can vary significantly. A lot will hinge on this upcoming school year, agrees Savion Castro, a school board member who supports the changes.  

“For those in the high schools, there was some consternation at first. All of a sudden people’s brains run to the worst-case scenario. And we’ve had honest-to-God experiences where students have weapons on them, and all-out brawls in the hallway."

“We’ve kind of had it as a patchwork, but not fully systematic restorative justice,” he said. 

Teachers have not uniformly embraced the new direction.

Madison Teachers Inc., the city’s teachers’ union, initially wanted to see the district couple the new approach with many more school counselors and social workers—something that would have put the plan out of financial reach. The union now supports the new plan, though its president, Michael Jones, says union members are aware that it will take time to shift culture overall.

“For those in the high schools, there was some consternation at first. All of a sudden people’s brains run to the worst-case scenario. And we’ve had honest-to-God experiences where students have weapons on them, and all-out brawls in the hallway,” said Jones, who was the dean of students at West High School until recently becoming the union president.

“Honestly, logistically, it’s easier to just send the kids home and call the parents,” he said. “The harder and more effective one is to have a student sit down, and have that discussion, and find out how we can repair the harm.” 

But over time, he says, it’s possible for educators to shift their thinking; to come to terms with the idea that maybe the police don’t need to be called; to realize that they don’t need to jump to conclusions when a rumor floats around that a student has a weapon. 

The union will continue to push the district to add more counselors and student-support staff in upcoming years, Jones said.

~Stephen Sawchuk

La Crosse, Wis.: A policing scandal upends plans to reduce SRO presence

In La Crosse, Wis., the school district decided to make some changes to its school resource officer program this year—but not get rid of it altogether.  An ill-timed police scandal, though, has made the process more contentious.

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A police officer walks down a hall inside a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (images: Michael Blann/Digital/Vision; Kristen Prahl/iStock/Getty Images Plus )

A district evaluation of the SRO program, ordered by the school board last spring and completed in December, concluded that “markers of the school-to-prison pipeline” existed in its schools. The district, which is majority-white, disproportionately disciplined and suspended students of color, students in poverty, students with disabilities, and male students. Changes were necessary, the district concluded.

The decision not to eliminate the SRO program felt like “a slap in the face” to students and alumni who showed up at district forums on the issue to talk about how the officers made them feel unsafe, said Brianna Washington, a sophomore at Logan High School, who is the co-president of Black Student Leaders, a student group in the district that advocated against SRO presence in schools. “It’s kind of like they just didn’t acknowledge everything we told them,” Washington said, in reference to the district. 

Superintendent Aaron Engel said that student input, sought through focus groups and surveys, directly influenced the changes the district is planning to make to the program: reducing the number of officers from five to three this coming school year, and then from three to two the next, freeing up $150,000 annually for a shared social worker position and new restorative justice efforts.

“I would rather go to a school counselor rather than a police officer."

Officers won’t be assigned to patrol specific buildings but will instead hold office hours and respond to individual incidents as they come up. 

Still, Engel maintained that eliminating the SRO program wouldn’t be the right move: It’s important to have officers who are specially trained to work with students available to the district, he said. “That said, if our students do not feel as though they are heard, then we have not done enough,” Engel said.

The future of the SRO program was further complicated after a social media incident between the police union and a citizen member of a council tasked with advising the county board on criminal justice. In a statement at the time, Engel called the incident “harassment and intimidation” of a community member, and put a new SRO agreement with the police department on hold in response.

Ultimately, though, Engel said he’s confident that they’ll have an agreement in place for the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. School officials will need to continue to notify police over issues like vandalism, or students who experience sexual assault. The district is working with the police department to include codes of conduct for SROs in the new memorandum of understanding.

But for Washington, the argument about the need for police rings hollow. She is a sexual assault survivor, and she said she personally wouldn’t want an officer to be the first line of call in that situation.

Other trained professionals could be brought in for SROs’ duties, she said. “I would rather go to a school counselor rather than a police officer,” said Washington, who is African American. 

When students returned to in-person instruction in January, the district and the department had already implemented some changes, Engel said. SROs now wear plain clothes and carry concealed weapons, and they don’t do “supervision activities,” like monitoring the hallways during passing times.

Engel stressed that shifting the culture around discipline in the district is just as important as changing the role that SROs played.

“The reason why students are ticketed in schools [for discipline issues] is because we call the police to ticket students in schools,” he said. “SROs aren’t just handing out tickets. Administrators call them.” 

~Sarah Schwartz

Oakland, Calif.: The pandemic complicates a bold plan for school safety

Last June, the Oakland, Calif., district disbanded its own school police force. That decision was predicated on advocacy going back to 2011, said Jasmine Williams, the communications director for the Black Organizing Project, a community advocacy group in Oakland.

The 2020 decision was “momentum meeting the moment,” Williams said. Organizers have since worked in collaboration with the district to create new protocols for issues that police would have previously been called for, like mental health crises. Now students will work with social workers or psychologists. 

SROs aren’t just handing out tickets. Administrators call them.

But in Oakland, as elsewhere, there have been fewer students on campus over the last 15 months, especially at the high schools where school police have tended to focus their work. That’s made the strengths and weaknesses of this bold change hard to gauge.

Almost overnight, the school safety conversation morphed from concerns about campus shootings to Zoom-bombing, the mental health effects of isolation on children, and a decline in referrals to child protective service agencies (attributed to the lack of in-person learning). 

Oakland did not start returning to in-person schooling until March 2021, meaning much work remains to be sure educators are aware of these new protocols and students’ rights. The fallout from the pandemic means that transformation may happen slowly, activists there said.

It’s been “kind of a weird twilight zone,” said Williams. 

As of March, school police were still on the district payroll, though they weren’t working in schools, according to KQED. The district said it could not make anyone available for comment before publication.

~Sarah Schwartz

Edmonds, Wash: Falling back on a prior arrangement with police

When a district in Washington state chose to terminate and not renew SRO contracts last summer, it had experience to fall back on.  

School resource officers have worked within the Edmonds, Wash., school district since at least the late 1990s. But from 2010 to 2017, the district got rid of its school resource officers due to budget cuts. 

During those seven years, the district created a school liaison officer program wherein schools would become a part of an assigned officer’s patrol in each jurisdiction, and that officer would respond to a school’s 911 calls when available. Now, it has reverted back to that arrangement, in addition to building up resources such as counseling. 

Greg Schwab, an assistant superintendent in the district, believes the move is in the best interest of all students and prioritizes community members’ concerns over police presence in schools—concerns that predated Floyd’s death.

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Demonstrators march across the Brooklyn Bridge as they remember George Floyd on the one-year anniversary of his death, Tuesday, May 25, 2021, in New York.
Demonstrators march across the Brooklyn Bridge as they remember George Floyd on the one-year anniversary of his death, Tuesday, May 25, 2021, in New York.
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP

Back in 2017, Schwab oversaw the return of SROs to school campuses once funding was restored. The rationale was simple: SROs had been there before the budget cuts, so they were back after.  But the local and national conversation around policing had changed a lot between 2010 and 2017. 

Right out of the gate, the district’s diverse communities saw the return of police on campus as a problem. In at least every other board meeting there were public comments expressing concern around the SROs’ presence in schools and what that was doing especially to students of color, who make up about 55 percent of the district, Schwab said.  

“I could have done a much better job of gathering community input before we re-implemented the SROs,” said Schwab, though he believes some officers also developed strong relationships with students.

“We really wanted them to be members of our school community,” Schwab said. 

The liaison model did come with some hiccups in response times to incidents like adult intruders on campus and a student bringing a handgun to school, Schwab said. And the assigned officer who was most familiar with administrators, staff, and school operations was not always the one available to respond to a call.   

So far, with only about 50 percent of students back in person on any given day, there has not been a need to call on the current liaison officers yet. The district is taking stock of lessons learned from the last iteration of the program for the fall.  

~Ileana Najarro

Portland, Maine: Will opportunities for mentoring disappear as SROs leave schools?

Deering High School in Portland, Maine, one of two schools to have their SROs removed.

After its contentious decision to remove SROs, the Portland, Maine, district found that school operated remarkably normal—even as the city’s police force says it worries that other benefits of the program will be lost.

The district’s decision came last July after hourslong debates and considerable opposition. It had employed two school resource officers at two high schools. And unlike larger school districts that closed their doors for most of 2020-21, Portland Public Schools operated in a hybrid model throughout last year, giving administrators and students a chance to experience what school would be like without SROs.

Their removal does not seem to have made much of a difference to student safety, said Superintendent Xavier Botana. Anecdotally, he said, there have been fewer student discipline conflicts, probably because both high schools with SROs are considerably emptier than in a normal year.

But even in previous years, there weren’t a large number of events that warranted police involvement in schools, and the handful that did happened both at schools that had resource officers and those that didn’t, Botana said.

“As a school district, we have evidence that we can have a safe and secure school environment without having a uniformed police officer in the building,” he said.

On the other hand, Portland’s school resource officers were stationed at the two largest high schools with the biggest populations of Black and brown students and English-language learners.

“As a society, we have deferred and passed on to the police many other duties that are not police related,” he said.

“They functioned as mentors, and as an additional pair of administrative hands, and I think that all of those extensions of the role of the police go beyond what police are actually trained and best equipped to do.”

High school senior Linh Nguyen was one of a handful of students asked by administrators to weigh in on the SRO debate before the vote. She’d built a website last year with anti-racism resources, including explanatory videos on systemic racism and police brutality.

Linh Nguyen, a student-activist at Deering High School in Portland, Maine, one of two schools to have their SROs removed.

“I just felt like SROs are a Band-Aid solution when there’s a conflict and we de-escalate by having them,” she said. “I think that in order to help prevent those conflicts, it’s better to focus on mental health resources and establish a good relationship between teachers and students for students to feel comfortable to go to teachers if they have something going on.”

It’s not a sentiment shared by Portland Police Chief Frank Clark or by former SRO Michael Bennis.

Clark said that he remains disappointed with the vote, and that one of the most important parts of the SRO job was building connections with students—particularly those who came from traumatic family backgrounds.

When students who Bennis knew were prone to missing school didn’t show up, he would personally try to bring them back. And in 2019, when Portland saw an influx of immigrants from West Africa, Bennis drew charcoal portraits of a few new students to make them feel welcome at school.

“I made more of a positive impact in those three years than the rest of my time in patrol,” Bennis said. “I was able to work with those students that needed the most help. And it was so beneficial to the community and the police department.”

The school district has not decided how it will allocate the money previously reserved for school resource officers this year; some of that money will continue to go to the police department, which the district still has a relationship with because Portland police officers provide security, crowd control, and traffic control at large events like school dances and football games.

“Our work this year was to try to come up with a common understanding of what it is that we mean by safe, which is still a work in progress,” Botana said.

~Eesha Pendharkar

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2021 edition of Education Week as These Districts Defunded Their School Police. What Happened Next?

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