Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated how many people at the July 11 School Board meeting spoke against the use of school resource officers. It was about 10 people.
Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff on Tuesday proposed continuing to have Minneapolis Police Department officers work in the district’s schools.
Graff proposed to the School Board a three-year contract between the district and the Minneapolis Police Department for the services of 14 officers. Seven would work in the district’s high schools, two would work at alternative schools and five would be roving. The School Board is scheduled to vote on the contract on Aug. 8.
Arguably no issue has generated more public comment at School Board meetings this past year than the use of school-based police, also known as school resource officers. Opponents have argued that the officers make minority students feel uncomfortable, especially because they walk around with guns. Supporters counter that the officers help keep buildings safe and build important police-community relationships that extend beyond the school grounds.
“They’re changing that perception of what a police officer is, and that can carry over into the communities where 911 responders are out in the community,” said MPD Deputy Chief of Investigations Bruce Folkens. “They’re humanizing all our police officers.”
About 10 people testified against the use of SROs at Tuesday’s School Board meeting, attended by many who were opposed to SROs. Many speakers encouraged the district to adopt restorative-justice practices instead of SROs.
“We want to bring back a system that doesn’t view youth as people who need to be punished but instead need to be worked with in terms of development,” Vanessa Taylor, a co-founder of the Black Liberation Project, the main group rallying against SROs, said in an interview.
SROs as problem solvers
MPS has utilized the services of police officers since the 1960s, but its most recent formal contract with MPD started during the 2008-09 school year. The district had 16 full-time SROs this past school year, including one in each of its traditional high schools and seven officers who roved multiple sites.
Approximately 30 percent of public schools in the U.S. had at least one SRO in the 2013-14 school year, according to a U.S. Department of Education survey. In Minnesota, 61 percent of high schools had an SRO during the 2012-13 school year, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
The SROs have contributed in part to a decrease in crime referrals to the Hennepin County Attorney’s office, according to Tom Arneson, managing attorney of the office’s Juvenile Prosecution Division. Referrals from MPS are down from 919 in 2006-07 to just 66 in 2016-17.
There were still 531 referrals to law enforcement this past school year, but nearly 90 percent of those cases weren’t referred to the County Attorney. Folkens credited that to the MPD’s approach of having SROs talk through potential criminal behavior with students. If a student is caught stealing a cell phone, for example, the SRO talks with that student and works to get the phone back, instead of citing the student for a crime, he said.
“The biggest thing is coming up with solutions to try and keep these kids out of the criminal justice system, which, a lot of times, it’s doable,” Southwest High School SRO Tyler Edwards said in an interview.
Edwards said his role involves a lot of mediating inter-student conflicts and building relationships with the students. He’s called in for safety concerns but doesn’t have anything to do with suspensions or rounding up truant students.
“It’s more about connecting with the kids,” he said of the role. “… A lot of these kids don’t have a positive adult role model.”
Edwards used to be the SRO at Anthony Middle School and said it was easier to build connections with the younger students. He said kids now are getting a negative perception of cops at an earlier age than they did a couple of years ago, because of what they see in the news.
However, the role still makes an impact out in the community, he said. He told one story of being on 911 response in North Minneapolis a couple of summers ago and seeing kids play fighting in the street. The kids were initially “standoffish” when they saw an officer, he said, but relaxed once they saw it was their SRO.
“Instantly, because I was their SRO, the relationship was different,” he said.
Positive student response to SROs
Thousands of students, staff and families echoed those positive feelings toward SROs in surveys completed over the past few months. About 73 percent of the more than 6,500 students surveyed indicated they felt that MPD SROs should work in their schools. That percentage stayed consistent across grade levels, races and geography.
The data showed that fewer than 15 percent have interacted with SROs. Those who had interacted with them tended to have better perceptions of the officers than those who hadn’t.
Edison High School student Gabriel Spinks, who’s serving as School Board student representative, said most students don’t know what SROs do. Many don’t like them because of the stigma surrounding police officers, he said.
He said he doesn’t think the district should get rid of SROs, adding that he doesn’t want to widen the stigma between minorities and police officers.
Southwest High School student Collin Robinson said he heard from students that there were no positive interactions between students and the former SRO at the school. He said he sees police as protecting only certain groups of people, adding that he wants MPS to research what other districts have done as alternatives to SROs. He suggested the district look at hiring non-field officers specifically trained for MPS who have no field experience.
Community, parent engagement
District leaders also held student-, parent- and community-engagement sessions in creating their recommendation. Most participants in the engagement sessions felt the district should maintain the SRO program, the data showed.
One student group felt strongly about eliminating the program, but that was the least objective group, MPS Chief of Accountability, Innovation and Research Eric Moore told the School Board.
Community members expressed a range of opinions at a June 27 community-engagement session at Lyndale Community School. The event included a presentation on the SRO program background before smaller groups discussed three scenarios: Maintaining the SRO program, reducing it or eliminating it.
In an interview, Cherie Atkinson, a parent at Burroughs Community School who attended the event, said she feels like individual SROs are amazing but questioned whether they are the right people to fix the relationship between the African-American community and police officers.
“We can’t prove that it leads to absolutely great outcomes and true reforming,” she said, expressing disappointment in the lack of data provided at the meeting
Atkinson, a school social worker, said that she’d rather have MPS pay for counselors, teachers and work on closing the achievement gap, adding that Burroughs doesn’t have money to hire a gifted teacher.
Sanford Middle School parent Sarah Hoffman said in an interview that she thinks the district needs to keep SROs in schools, noting that they build trust between youth and police and help with de-escalating situations.
“I want somebody in the schools who already knows these kids … so they don’t overreact and react inappropriately,” she said.
One participant questioned whether the district had a “hidden agenda” and wanted to know if district leaders had a preference on the three scenarios.
In response, Associate Superintendent Ron Wagner said the district was continuing to capture input and that it was a multifaceted process.
“It’s not about a hidden agenda,” he said. “It’s about capturing input.”
School Board members KerryJo Felder and Bob Walser were in attendance at the meeting. Felder stormed out of the cafeteria, critical that MPS staff didn’t have a computer available to answer data-related questions.
At Tuesday’s School Board meeting, she criticized district leaders’ choice to have outside facilitators lead the community-engagement sessions. Chief Operations Officer Karen DeVet said that was a deliberate choice, in order to have “impartiality reflected in that work.”
Felder also critized the data-collection process, saying she felt like more Northside schools should have been included and that more black students should have been surveyed. In response, Moore said he stood behind the veracity of the data-collection process, noting the extensive range of stakeholders surveyed.
Strong principal support
Principals were among the most ardent supports of the SRO program, with 93 percent of those surveyed saying they supported it.
Carla Steinbach, president of the Minneapolis Principals’ Forum, the principals’ union, testified in support of the proposal. She said the SROs ensure safety of students and staff, help build positive community and neighborhood relationships within schools and are important role models for students.
They show the “human face” of the police force, she said, and can inspire careers in law enforcement.
Steinbach did advocate for more training for SROs and only using them in situations in which a law is broken. But she said they are valuable members of the school community and are more effective than security guards.
She also criticized some audience members for setting forth a narrative that is “not supported by evidence.” Multiple people who testified against SROs incorrectly stated the number of officers in certain buildings, for example.
In an interview, Washburn High School Principal Rhonda Dean also expressed support for the SRO program, noting how schools are inherently vulnerable places. The officers act as deterrents for trouble, she said, in situations that could range from people drinking or doing drugs on the school playground to a parent trying to violate a no-contact order.
The SROs’ familiarity with students, staff and the building allows them to diffuse situations better than a regular precinct officer could, Dean said. They attend community events such as basketball games and build relationships with students that extend beyond school.
The program also benefits officers, Dean said, because they see that not all kids are bad.
“What an opportunity to build relationships among our youth and the police department,” Dean said, “because they’re going to interact.”
5 1/2-hour-long meeting
Tuesday’s meeting started with about an hour of public comment, with a majority of speakers opposing SROs. Several notable Northside community members testified their strong support for the program, however, including Lynne Crockett, president of the North High School Alumni Association, and Larry McKenzie, the head boy’s basketball coach at North.
“We need our SRO,” McKenzie said.
The board then moved onto a presentation on contract-alternative programs, which lasted about an hour. It moved onto the presentation on SROs more than 2 1/2 hours into the meeting, by which point the anti-SRO crowd had thinned out almost completely.
Graff said he made the decision to cut two of the roving SRO positions after talking with community members throughout the past year and based off his experience in his previous district, in Anchorage, Alaska. He has proposed using the funding instead for increased training, software upgrades and add an additional full-time employee to support schools.
DeVet explained details of the contract, such as that it would require more frequent and detailed data collection and training in areas such as child development, cultural competence and restorative justice. In addition, it would require officers to wear “soft” uniforms of khakis and a polo shirt, ongoing SRO performance feedback and more district input in the SRO selection process.
It also contains a provision that would allow MPS and MPD to reopen the contract at any point before Feb. 1 of the next school year.
“We have to do an analysis of how this is working,” Graff said.
The SRO presentation and discussion ended nearly five hours into the meeting, and the meeting ended a half-hour later.