“Given the life-altering consequences and racially disparate impact of school-based arrests and police referrals, this forum will shed light on how students, community members, schools [and the] State are [dealing with] this issue, said,” Kenneth Eban, managing director of Students For Education Reform (SFER) Minnesota.
The public forum titled “Why Are Police in Our Schools?” was held on Thursday, January 26 at St. Paul Central High School. Language interpretation services were available, and a large group of community members were in attendance.
The event was sponsored by the St. Paul Foundation and The Minneapolis Foundation. Sponsorships also came from St. Paul Youth Services, Voices for Racial Justice, New Republica, NAACP Minneapolis, Challenging the Education Code, and Latino Youth Development Collaborative. All of these organizations came together to bring this education reform topic to the table.
According to SFER Minn, law enforcement officers work in 28 percent of Minnesota schools. In regards to K-12 education, the percentages are 21 percent in K-5, 59 percent of middle schools, and 61 percent of high schools. However, even considering these facts, there are no statewide standards for training, certification, protocol, or monitoring to guide how these officers work with students.
In the 1970s there were about 100 police officers working in schools in the United States; today there are over 43,000. Many parents, teachers, and community members are concerned and alarmed at these facts and the large presence of what schools call SROs (School Resource Officers). Having police in the schools often leads to arrests of students for conduct that might otherwise be dealt with by the school’s staff.
The forum included five adult panelists representing Minnesota and St. Paul along with five students who also represented schools on both sides of the river. Although Minneapolis Public Schools had a representative present, St. Paul Public Schools did not. This absence was upsetting to community members with one person standing up and saying, “The fact that St. Paul Public Schools does not have a representative present tonight is a disgrace and a slap in the face to all of you parents.”
The forum was moderated by Rashad Turner, a civil rights activist, head of community engagement for Minnesota Comeback, a nonprofit group of foundations and business leaders working to close the achievement gap. Turner previously served as White Bear Lake Schools’ liaison to African American students and is a founding member of Black Lives Matter St. Paul.
The adult panel was comprised of Tony Simmons, the executive director for the High School of Recording Arts; Anika Bowman, co-chair of the NAACP Minneapolis Criminal Justice Committee; Pastor Marea Perry, parent of a Como Park Senior High Student and a frontline member of Black Lives Matter St. Paul; and Jason Matlock, Minneapolis Public Schools representative and former police officer.
One basic question for the panelists was, “Why are police in schools?” To this question, Bowman replied, “In 1994 there was a bill that the Clinton Administration put into place called the Gun Free Act. This act came about during the Columbine shooting era, when there was a mass outbreak of shootings in schools.
“With these shootings came a large community outcry of people saying we do not want any guns in our schools and how can our government treat this issue,” continued Bowman. “Amazingly they came up with the Improving America Act — something that was supposed to improve America and America’s schools — that actually put law enforcement in place into our educational systems.
Bowman continued, “With that came the Zero Tolerance Policy, which along with the gun act I believe can be understandable, and people need to be safe. But the Zero Tolerance policy also expanded to behaviors. It expanded to drug tickets, to gang violence… That is why we have police in our schools, because obviously the schools do not feel competent to deal with those issues.”
At the opening of the forum before the panelists were introduced, the introduction facilitator asked, “If we are not allowed to treat our children this way, why are the police allowed to treat our children this way? Our goal is to educate and not incarcerate our children.” These statements were met with cheers and applause from the audience.
Pastor Perry stated, “Right now, our children are not being taken care of by any SRO in our schools. This has become a national issue in our schools with our Black children.”
The student panelists spoke of feeling like they feel “disconnected,” “looked down on,” “harassed,” “not understood,” and “disrespected” by the SROs at their schools. One student said he had been labeled a drug dealer. Along with that label he said he was “pushed, thrown down and head bashed into the ground” for something he said he did not do.
Another student audience member broke down in tears and was consoled by other community members. She said she was disrespected and harassed by her school SRO. She stated, “I went to the principal week after week, and he was nowhere to be found. The issue never got resolved.”
What can be done to address this issue? How can the community get more involved? How can we help save our schools and our children and provide them with a safe and fearless school atmosphere? These and related questions were raised and will continue to be addressed by SFER, which has a few more public forms lined up on this topic.
For more information, call 763-248-9579 or visit www.sferminnesota.org.
Brandi Phillips welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.