By MARGIE O’LOUGHLIN
A community meeting held at Central High School on Jan. 27 attracted about 200 participants. The meeting was organized by the Minnesota branch of Students for Educational Reform (SFER), a non-profit organization that empowers community members, parents, and students to bring their voices together for educational justice.
At issue was the racially charged question of how community members view having police officers in St. Paul public schools.
For the 2016-17 school year, the St. Paul School Board has authorized $984,499 to fund nine school resource officers (called SROs) across the city. The School Board bears nearly all of that cost; $100,000 is covered by the City of St. Paul.
SROs are sworn law enforcement officers who work in the schools but, according to several voices in the audience, that’s about the only commonality they share.
A broadsheet distributed by Students for Educational Reform at the meeting said “SROs work in 28% of Minnesota schools, yet there is no standardized training, certification, or workplace monitoring to guide how the officers interact with students. If SROs do receive pre-service or on-the-job training, it’s related to law enforcement or security. It rarely covers mediation, de-escalation, youth development, working with youth who have special needs or have experienced trauma—all of which are critical issues when it comes to having a positive school culture.”
Photo left: Educator Rashad Turner (pictured at right) moderated a youth panel with high school students from Minneapolis and St. Paul. The student panel expressed a unanimously negative opinion of police in their Minneapolis and St. Paul high schools. They perceive that students of color are especially targeted, and do not see SROs as a positive presence in their schools. (Photo by Margie O’Loughlin)
Latasha Gandy, executive director for SFER MN said, “We want to make sure that all Minnesota students feel safe and nurtured in the school environment where they’re meant to learn. Once a kid has had even one interaction with the criminal justice system, the likelihood that they’ll drop out of school rises dramatically.”
At the meeting, a panel of community members was moderated by educator Rashad Turner. In response to his question, “Why do you think police are being placed in St. Paul schools?” Annika Foley, community arts activist and Rondo resident, said, “There is a need for public safety, but it’s coming at the expense of students of color.”
The mostly African-American, East African, Latino, and Asian audience agreed.
Jason Mattlock, a 12 year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department and a former SRO, said,“When it comes to doing the job of an SRO, what the officers lack is an understanding of their own biases—as well as an understanding of the importance of racial disparities.”
Tony Simmons is principal and co-founder of the High School for Recording Arts on University Ave. near Lexington Pkwy. He requested an SRO in his school a few years ago, because he felt it was necessary to ensure a safe learning environment. “We haven’t had an incident that resulted in an arrest since then,” Simmons said, “but every day I worry that something could escalate into that.”
Pastor Marea Perry, a parent of a Como High School student, said, “I feel that SROs are trained to be out on the streets, not dealing with our kids in the schools.”
“At SFER,” Latasha Gandy summarized, “our hope is that there would be no police officers in the schools. Our reality view is that SROs will be present – but that they will answer to the same code of conduct across the board. We have asked Governor Dayton for a task force that would create a state-wide curriculum and certification for SROs; clearly defined SRO roles, duties and protocol; an emphasis on prevention and restorative justice, data collection and evaluation of SROs impact on students. We are eager to see what the outcome of that will be.”