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Police-Free Schools Movement Faces First Major Test As Students Return to Classrooms After a Traumatic Year Away

By Mark Keierleber | March 24, 2021

A Minneapolis school resource officer patrols Roosevelt High School in 2019. The Minneapolis school district severed ties with the city’s police department last year following George Floyd’s death at the hands of a local officer. (David Joles/Getty Images)

The pandemic had already forced students out of classrooms when George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer pushed school leaders nationwide to reconsider the role cops play on campuses. Now, as students trickle back into schools for the first time in a year in many places, including the city where Floyd was killed, districts that severed ties with police departments face their first big test.

Across the country, advocates for police-free schools said the moment offers mixed emotions. After years of advocacy and nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that gave their movement unprecedented momentum, proponents said the return to in-person learning provides an opportunity to prove that police aren’t necessary to maintain safe schools.

But they’re also on edge about whether districts are fully committed to less punitive school safety strategies, especially as pandemic-induced disruptions and public health rules like mask mandates drag on. After the lengthy shutdown where students faced family illness, economic instability, isolation and learning loss, some experts worry that many could return to schools with trauma leading to behavioral challenges.

Anxiety is particularly high in Minneapolis, where barricades and razor wire were erected downtown as the murder trial of former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, charged in Floyd’s death, got underway. The final juror was selected Tuesday. The appearance of a militarized city and the trial’s outcome could further traumatize students, leading to concern among advocates that negative interactions between police and youth could spill over into schools. The district is already preparing to help guide students through potential turmoil, officials said.

“I’m worried about what the impact of the trial will do to our city right now, and how is that then going to reverberate into our first time in-person [learning] in over a year?” asked Kenneth Eban, an education activist in Minneapolis.

After Floyd’s death prompted the Minneapolis school board to terminate its longstanding contract with the city police department, the district hired a cadre of “public safety support specialists,” many with criminal justice experience, to fill the void. Though the support specialists serve a security function, district leaders have touted them as a major shift from armed, school-based officers with arrest powers.

But critics are concerned that the district is building an internal security force that isn’t substantively different from police.

Among them is Khulia Pringle, the Minnesota delegate of the National Parents Union, who was invited to participate in the support specialists’ interviewing process. Since then, she’s felt “left out in the dark” about how they’ll be used once campuses fully reopen, with high schoolers scheduled to return April 12. As district leaders focus school safety conversations mainly on the pandemic, she said they’ve provided parents with little information about the specialists, which she called an “experiment on the backs of” students of color and those from low-income households.

“I’m scared,” Pringle said. “I just pray to God that it all works out, and I pray to God that no Black child, no brown child and no indigenous child suffers any trauma trying to figure out if this experiment is going to work.”

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During remote learning, the Minneapolis safety specialists conducted home visits to re-engage students with attendance issues, trained school staff on how to de-escalate volatile situations with students, and conducted campus security assessments, Jason Matlock, the director of emergency management, safety and security, said in a statement.

Through the home visits, it was clear that they’re able to “be a bridge between safety and relationship building.”

As the highly charged Chauvin trial unfolds, the specialists have been readying to offer help to students who may be in distress.

“Without some of the barriers to engagement that come from wearing a police uniform, they can be present, share authentic experiences with students and listen to the needs of the students,” Matlock said.

Though the Minneapolis district was among the first to break from its police contract, dozens of districts nationwide were quick to follow. Education leaders in more than 40 cities have since removed or dramatically scaled back the presence of police in schools, according to a tally by the Education Civil Rights Alliance at the National Center for Youth Law.

Those locales span from Portland, Oregon, to Madison, Wisconsin. How these districts plan to move forward, however, varies widely across the country, said Miriam Rollin, director of the civil rights alliance. But in order for the various plans to work, she said, it’s critical that districts prioritize strategies that could prevent student outbursts in the first place, such as by hiring additional school counselors.

“Can I be excited and concerned at the same time? I am excited about the potential to do it right, and I am concerned — deeply concerned — about the potential to do it wrong,” Rollin said. “Both are equally potential right now.”

Advocates’ jitters, similar to those in Minneapolis, were evident in Los Angeles, where the school board voted last month to scale back its district-run police department. That vote cut 133 positions from the LA Unified School District police department, removed all officers from being stationed on campuses, banned the use of pepper spray on students and reallocated $25 million to an initiative to improve the educational experiences of Black students. The plan also includes the adoption of “school climate coaches,” described by the district as student advocates focused on fostering positive school cultures.

Kelly Gonez, president of the school board in the nation’s second-largest school district, said that positive relationships between adults and students are critical to school safety. The new safety coaches, she said in a statement, will be “trained in de-escalation techniques, implicit bias and socio-emotional learning strategies to assist students who may need support.”

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Under a new “patrol model,” sworn police officers won’t be stationed on campus but will be nearby “if an event requires an immediate response.” Such a strategy will help protect students during an emergency, she said, while recognizing the needs of Black students “for whom the presence of police on campus not only detracted from a feeling of safety, but often constituted actual harm.”

Channing Martinez, the director of organizing at the Labor/Community Strategy Center, said the Los Angeles vote was a major victory for proponents of police-free schools, yet it was also just the first step in their goal to dismantle the district police department entirely. As the plan is implemented — L.A. schools are expected to reopen mid-April  Martinez said it’ll be critical to ensure the school climate coaches aren’t police with a different name.

“That’s going to be the struggle,” he said.

Members of the National Guard and Minnesota Police stand outside Hennepin County Courthouse before jury selection for the trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin, charged with the killing of George Floyd last summer. (Chandan Khanna/Getty Images)

When the lunchroom feels like jail

The presence of school-based police has grown exponentially in the last several decades. About 43 percent of public K-12 schools — and 71 percent of high schools — had armed law enforcement officers stationed on campus in the 2015-16 school year, according to the most recent federal data. Proponents say the officers build positive relationships with students who see them as role models.

Even in Los Angeles, campus police enjoy support from the majority of students, parents and staff, according to a recent district survey conducted by an outside research firm. In total, 51 percent of students, 64 percent of parents and 59 percent of school staff said they believe school-based officers make campuses safe. Among students, just 17 percent said they do not feel safe when a police officer is present on campus and 27 percent said they feel uncomfortable around school police.

“The police are very nice to us,” one Latino student told researchers in a focus group. “They are not scary, and they talk to us. If you say hi, they say hi back in a friendly manner.”

But Los Angeles students’ perception of campus police varies widely based on their race; just 35 percent of Black students said that officers make schools safe compared with 54 percent of Latinos, 49 percent of whites and 56 percent of Asians/Pacific Islanders.

There’s a lack of evidence to suggest that school-based officers actually make campuses safer, and high-profile incidents of police brutality has galvanized a “counselors not cops” protest movement that has called for schools to replace police with mental health supports and other non-punitive prevention measures.

Even with many campuses closed during the pandemic, several negative interactions between police and students have fueled advocates’ fire. In January, a school resource officer in Florida came under scrutiny for tasing a girl in a high school cafeteria. Officials said the officer was trying to break up a fight when the teenage student attacked him. In a separate Florida incident, state law enforcement officials launched an investigation after another officer bodyslammed a female student in a campus breezeway.

In a focus group for the Los Angeles study, one Black student told researchers that the officers are rude to students and often confront them with force.

Officers treated one teen “Like she was nothing,” the student said. “I mean slammed her and the whole nine. So, they are very rough, and they are not very respectful.”

Nathaniel Genene

For many Minneapolis students, the presence of police created a culture of fear, said Nathaniel Genene, a high school senior who was the school board’s student representative when it voted to terminate the police contract. This negative climate was particularly evident in the lunchroom, he said, where officers watched as students ate.

“For a lot of students that made them uncomfortable just eating and having someone staring down your back when you’re not doing anything that is of criminal intent,” he said. “You’re just sitting there eating your food.”

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When he returns to in-person learning next month, the police won’t be there — a change that he called a “new chapter” for the district. Though the school board’s decision to cut ties with the city police department “was more of a moral question and a principles question,” he expects students to feel just as safe as they did before. School-based police offered students “a false sense of security,” he said. “As far as being able to sit in a lunchroom and not feel like you have a target on your back, I think it’s going to give kids a sigh of relief.”

Minneapolis students who previously felt uneasy by the police presence on campus no longer “have to fear that the slightest mistake they make might have a law enforcement response,” the district said in the statement. “Instead, they see a member of their school community ready to advocate for them and keep their best interests and their safety in mind.”

High school senior Genene was optimistic about the district’s decision to hire the public safety support specialists, noting that they were “never intended to be a one-for-one replacement” of the school resource officers and, unlike campus cops, have an opportunity to become “trusted adults” for students in distress.

But their implementation comes at a time of heightened tension for the city, with the Chauvin trial underway. Local activist Marika Pfefferkorn, executive director of the Midwest Center for School Transformation and a proponent of the police-free schools movement, said she’s concerned about how the support specialists will confront potential classroom disruptions and youth involvement in protests. She questioned whether the support specialists would partner with city police to identify students involved in protests.

Now, as more school systems join the growing list of districts without police in schools, Pfefferkorn discouraged education leaders from looking to Minneapolis as a success story.

“Minneapolis did a quick and easy solution and they didn’t engage in a larger conversation about what this would look like” after the police were removed from schools, she said. “For folks to be pointing at Minneapolis and saying ‘Look, we’ve got the next solution,’ if you’re in the research world you’d say, ‘This is a theory, but we don’t have any evidence to back it up.’”

While some local activists have challenged the district’s decision to hire the support specialists, other school safety experts have derided Minneapolis’s move to terminate its police contract altogether. Consultant Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, blasted districts’ embrace of police-free schools more broadly as being politically motivated. Their focus on optics rather than on conducting evaluations of school policing programs could come back to bite them, he predicted.

“All hell’s going to break loose,” Trump said, noting that districts could face negligence lawsuits if someone is harmed during a violent incident in school. The result, he said, could be the rise of student discipline policies that are even more punitive than before.

“We swing from one extreme to the other to a point of being radically lenient policy-wise on one hand to radically punitive and draconian on the other, the tough-on-crime stuff,” he said. “The best policy is usually somewhere in the middle, and we’re not in a society where anything is in the middle anymore.”

(Jessica Rinaldi/Getty Images)

The movement is about more than police

Though advocates for police-free schools found an unprecedented wave of victories following Floyd’s death, the hard work has just begun. Simply removing officers from schools was never the end goal, said Maria Fernandez, senior campaign strategist at The Advancement Project, a national racial justice group.

“Implementation is so critical, and it’s always the unsexy work,” she said, requiring advocates to negotiate with districts to ensure resources traditionally earmarked for police are reinvested in student services, like counselors and restorative justice.

“We want to make sure that it’s not just about removing the police officers, but that we’re actually talking about transforming” schools and the way they serve Black children, she said. “We have to always be on the lookout for all the insidious ways that we know policing can happen,” including surveillance and internal school security forces that function similar to police.

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The same is true in Minneapolis. The struggle was never just about a dozen school-based officers, Eban, the education activist, said. Instead, it’s about a broader culture change away from punitive school policies, he said. But as students return after an extended period away, he urged educators to do everything in their power to avoid calling the police for backup. Every time an officer is called to a situation, he said, is “a failure of the district to not be more intentional” in their school safety protocols.

Educators will “no longer have the crutch” of school-based police “to handle uncomfortable or difficult situations,” the district said in the statement, noting that the safety specialists will “reduce the desire by adults to ask for police assistance” during incidents that can be managed internally.

Advocates in Madison, Wisconsin, have also turned their focus on educators after succeeding in removing officers from classrooms. Bianca Gomez, the youth justice director at the nonprofit Freedom, Inc., said it’s important to “hold teachers accountable for using police to harm young people.” The next step in police-free schools is ensuring that educators don’t simply call 911 on students, she said. To make that a reality, her group will ask educators to sign a pledge committing to not calling on police for backup.

“We don’t want any police having interactions with our young people,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a school cop, it doesn’t matter if it’s a community officer, it doesn’t matter if you’re just calling 911 and Officer Random shows up.”

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