School Board votes to form Climate and Safety Groups as an alternative to police

By Casey Ek

The St. Paul School Board voted on June 23 to cut its ties with the St. Paul Police Department, ending the decades-old practice of employing St. Paul cops as school resource officers in the St. Paul Public Schools’ seven high schools. The vote was 5-1, with board member John Brodrick dissenting. It came just a week before the district’s current contract with the police department was to expire.

Instead of school resource officers, the district will create what it calls School Climate and Safety Groups to develop building-specific climate and safety plans that address the conditions in each school. The groups will work with a new School Climate and Safety Implementation Committee made up of district and school administrators, staff bargaining units, students and up to two School Board members. An interim School Climate and Safety plan will be considered by the School Board at its meeting on August 18.

School resource officer Jermaine Davis made the rounds at Central High School in February 2017, greeting students along the way. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“When somebody is traumatized there is no learning going on,” Allen said. “If we’re putting the traumatic person or the traumatic situation inside the school, how do we expect to increase achievement? We’re struggling in those areas, especially with our black and brown kids.”

The school district received more than 1,000 emails regarding its contract with the St. Paul Police Department, according to Superintendent Joseph Gothard. Most of the emails urged the district to end the school resource officer program and divert the funds to other district programs, he said. Most of the emails came from St. Paul residents, including current and former students, he said, but other emails came from elsewhere in Minnesota and even out of state.

The school district had budgeted $775,000 for its seven school resource officers in the 2019-20 school year. However, the closing of the schools and the implementation of distance learning this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic reduced those costs to $550,000. The district paid $700,000 for the seven officers in the 2018-19 school year and $884,499 for nine officers in the 2016-17 school year.

The program came under fire in 2016 when school resource officer Bill Kraus was accused of using excessive force in arresting 19-year-old Darion Bell, who was reportedly trespassing at Central High School. The district then instituted a host of changes aimed at improving the program.

 

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Gothard acknowledged that the proposed School Safety and Climate program may or may not be more costly than the school resource officers. “Some of the recommendations that come to us could be a reinvestment, an investment of even more dollars in some of this work,” he said. “I’m not going into this thinking we have a fixed amount to work with. I’m going into this thinking we have a blank slate for us to start with for what we need to make it better.”

According to School Board member Chauntyll Allen, the costs of the new program will be worth the outcome. The decision to cut the school district’s ties with the St. Paul Police was a long time coming, she said. The presence of the police had a negative impact on the achievement of students of color, she added.

“When somebody is traumatized there is no learning going on,” Allen said. “If we’re putting the traumatic person or the traumatic situation inside the school, how do we expect to increase achievement? We’re struggling in those areas, especially with our black and brown kids.”

Allen applauded the board members who joined her in voting to end the contract with the police, saying they were “on the right side of history. Overall, our students are going to be safer, they’re going to feel safer.”

The School Board vote runs counter to the position of the district’s seven high school principals, who all supported renewing the contract with the St. Paul Police Department. Brodrick argued that the school resource officers often served as mentors for the high school students. He also cited a 2019 Minnesota Student Survey administered by the state Department of Education, which found that 94 percent of the 11th-grade students surveyed either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that having a police officer in their school was a good idea.

However, Como Park High School 11th-grader Kalid Ali told the School Board on June 17 that many of his classmates feel unsafe in the presence of the resource officers. “Nobody sees an officer as a positive tool for his life or his future,” Ali said. “If you see an officer with a gun, it’s a threat that you might be the next one on his hit list.”

Board member Zuki Ellis praised the performance of the individual police officers who served as resource officers, but said she did not believe police belong in the schools.

Board member Jessica Kopp said the vote to end the resource officer program is a step toward reaching the district’s goals for equity in the schools. “But it would be a mistake to think this is the only thing we need to do,” Kopp said.

The School Board’s decision to cut ties with the police department represents a growing trend of governmental institutions pulling back from their collaborations with law enforcement amid protests over the death of George Floyd on May 25 while in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers. On June 2, the Minneapolis Public Schools ended its decades-old contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. The Minneapolis Park Board has done the same.

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