New personnel would replace St. Paul police in high schools

By Casey Ek

The Saint Paul Public Schools’ Office of Security and Emergency Management is finalizing plans for replacing the school resource officers (SROs) in the district’s seven high schools and will present them at the Saint Paul School Board’s meeting on August 18.

The School Board tasked the office and its director Laura Olson with implementing School Climate and Safety Groups in the high schools in lieu of the SROs, which were Saint Paul police officers. The groups are to report to a School Climate and Safety Implementation Committee made up of school and district administrators, staff bargaining units, high school students and up to two School Board members.

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School resource officer Jermaine Davis kept an eye out for any trouble in the halls of Central High School during a class break in 2017. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Saint Paul School Board member Steve Marchese said that while many may view the board’s decision as pandering, it was a long time coming. “Concerns about the SRO program have been expressed for years,” he said. “I hope that people see this as an opportunity. We have the opportunity to do some exciting work.”

The presence of SROs in the high schools came under increased scrutiny after the May 25 killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police. The Minneapolis School Board voted to remove school resource officers from its buildings on June 2. The Saint Paul School Board followed suit on June 23, voting 5-1 not to renew its contract with the SROs.

Rashad Turner, executive director of the Minnesota Parent Union, said, “we’re ecstatic to see the SROs gone, but we need to make sure as a community that the solution for replacing them isn’t just putting lipstick on a pig. It seems to be sort of placating or even pandering to communities of color while we’re going through what some would describe as the greatest uprising since the civil rights movement.”

Saint Paul School Board member Steve Marchese said that while many may view the board’s decision as pandering, it was a long time coming. “Concerns about the SRO program have been expressed for years,” he said. “I hope that people see this as an opportunity. We have the opportunity to do some exciting work.”

The School Board’s decision ran counter to the wishes of the district’s seven high school principals, all of whom support keeping the SROs. Data collected last fall from the Saint Paul school district showed that 96 percent of high school juniors agreed or strongly agreed that having SROs in the schools was a good idea. Statewide, 94 percent of juniors felt it was a good idea.

School Board member John Brodrick referenced that survey when he voted against cutting ties with SROs. He declined to elaborate on that decision, saying he preferred to let his vote speak for itself. But others have been more vocal in their support of the SROs.

In an email to the School Board, Tyrone Terrill, president of the African American Leadership Council, said the board would have “blood” on its hands if a student or teacher is injured or killed in the absence of an SRO. “Once again, the Saint Paul Public Schools has made it clear that it does not care about Black families,” Terrill stated. “It is our Black children who are failing in all of your schools. If you were as dedicated to getting rid of poor performing superintendents, principals and teachers, who year after year fail to educate our Black children, as you were to getting rid of SROs, our Black children might have a chance to at least get a marginal education.”

Terrill was not alone. On July 9, the Saint Paul Pioneer Press published a letter from Aaron Anthony Benner and Roy Magnuson, both of whom taught in the district for over 15 years, expressing their dissatisfaction with the School Board’s decision, citing safety and equity as major concerns.

Marchese criticized the student survey on SROs as not pulling from a wide enough group of students. He said his motion to cut the school district’s ties with SROs was shaped with the district’s racial equity policy in mind. He said the resistance to removing SROs is largely due to the lack of a known alternative.

According to Turner, the high school principals’ support of SROs demonstrates a “lack of creativity. Those principals need to check their biases and focus on putting together a school community where the students want to be there. I think it’s easy to get caught up in having low expectations for students and children.”

School safety and replacing SROs are not mutually exclusive, said Turner, who attended Highland Park High School. He believes a community-based in-school mentorship program could ensure students’ safety by preventing incidents before they happen.

“Cops aren’t stopping anything that relationships couldn’t prevent,” Turner said. “(Relationship-based mentorships) can create a school environment that’s conducive to students reaching their full potential. It creates a more loving environment.”

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