Resource officer program was fraught topic before George Floyd

School Board terminates contract with MPD

Minneapolis School Board
From left to right: Kim Ellison, Ed Graff, School Board treasurer Kimberly Caprini and student representative Nathaniel Genene. File photo from March 31, 2020

The School Board’s vote to discontinue the school resource officer (SRO) program — made eight days after George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer — has abruptly ended discussion of one of the most contentious issues the district has faced in recent years.

On June 2, the board voted against renewing a contract with the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) once the three-year deal expires in August.

Board member Josh Pauly wrote on Twitter before the vote that the district can’t “align itself with MPD and claim to fight institutional racism.” He said the district shouldn’t partner with “organizations that do not see the humanity in our students.”

The vote means that schools will no longer have officers specifically trained to interact with youth. The district said it has yet to be determined which law enforcement agencies will respond to 911 calls.

Hundreds of people, including U.S. Rep. Omar, rallied outside of district headquarters before the vote in support of the resolution. The district teachers union applauded the decision in a Facebook post.

“This is just the first step in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline and the racism our students of color face every day,” union president-elect Greta Callahan said in a statement. She added that students, parents and community should be included in deciding “what happens next in our schools.”

While district principals have consistently advocated for SROs, some students and board members have raised questions about the program since at least 2014.

In a June 2015 board discussion about the program, student representative Noah Branch of Patrick Henry High School said officers can “bring an aspect of violence” to schools. He said he knew of “multiple accounts” of officers macing students and that in his experience, SROs at Henry were used as a “scare tactic [to] keep kids in place.”

Former board member Carla Bates questioned whether the police department as a whole was doing a good job dealing with Minneapolis students, though she said some individual SROs were a positive influence on students.

Police from either the Park Board or city have worked in Minneapolis schools for decades. One officer is assigned to each of the seven traditional high schools, with seven others rotating through the rest of the district’s schools. They are tasked with mediating conflicts, building relationships with students and responding to emergencies. Some also help with extracurricular activities, including Officer Charles Adams, a North High School alumnus who coaches the North football team and was recently given a coach of the year award.

Officers aren’t supposed to be involved in routine school discipline.

The use of SROs has become controversial across the country in recent years, after fatal police shootings and a video of a South Carolina officer slamming a student to the ground after she wouldn’t give up her cell phone. Activists have frequently asked the Minneapolis School Board to stop using them, though one 2017 survey showed that over 70% of students, staff and parents think they should work in district schools.

Kenneth Eban of the education nonprofit Our Turn (formerly Students for Education Reform), which has organized against SROs since Philando Castile was killed by police in 2016, said he recognizes that SROs like Adams are beloved in their schools. But he also said SRO programs are problematic because they lead to the “criminalization of students” and because many students are uncomfortable with police being in schools.

“There are so many students that do not relate seeing a police officer … to safety,” he said.

Eban was part of a group that led an unsuccessful push in 2017 to get the School Board to cut ties with the police department. That effort culminated in a five-and-a-half-hour-long August 2017 meeting in which the shouts of activists forced the board to finish its business in a different room.

He and a group of students asked the board in January 2019 to reopen the contract with the police department, but the call went unheeded.

Board chair Kim Ellison said that while the SRO program has been working, she supported the decision to end it because of the actions of the police department as a whole. Vice Chair Jenny Arneson said the district can’t have contracts with entities that “don’t support the human rights” of the city’s black citizens.

All nine board members ultimately voted in favor of cutting ties with the Police Department, but several were hesitant about a complete break. Board member KerryJo Felder asked the board to consider keeping SROs at North and Henry “if needed,” due to “activity and community want.” Her amendment was rejected on a 5-3 vote with one abstention.

Another amendment, which would have offered Superintendent Ed Graff guidelines for replacing the SROs, was also rejected.

While the vote has been celebrated, not all are happy about it. North students said before the vote that officers wouldn’t be able to respond as quickly to an emergency at school as Adams would and that an officer like the one who choked Floyd could respond.

Police Deputy Chief Erick Fors said in a statement that the department appreciated the opportunity to serve the school district and that relationships built through the SRO program were impactful for students, staff and officers.

“We will continue to work in cooperation with the Minneapolis Public Schools regarding safety and security issues,” he said.

Graff said in a statement that his leadership team is committed to preparing a student safety plan by Aug. 18.