Harding student’s stabbing death was just the latest instance of disorder in schools.
Still in mourning over the February 10 stabbing death of 15-year-old Devin Scott at Harding High School, Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) staff, students and parents are searching for answers to the problem of growing violence in schools.
Just three weeks before Scott’s death, a Washington Technology Magnet School staff member was wounded by gunfire during an after-school fight between two groups of students. Two days before that, a 16-year-old boy was shot and critically injured at Jimmy Lee Recreation Center, a few hours after school got out across the street at Central High School.
Those were among the many incidents of school violence brought to light in front of a packed house at Washington Technology Magnet on February 28. School district administrators and the Saint Paul School Board intended the public meeting to be a listening session, and aside from a brief introduction, district leaders were mostly silent.
A failure to stem the violence
Dozens of students, parents, teachers and other school staff testified, addressing their concerns to the School Board and administrators, including Superintendent Joe Gothard. Many of them admonished district leaders for their failure to stem the violence.
Mafiso Ahmad, a 9th-grader at Como Park High School, testified that “when you see someone with a knife or a gun (in school), it’s not even surprising at this point. (You see people getting stabbed) or vaping, doing drugs. It’s normal now. I don’t want to normalize it.”
Central High School alumna and SPPS teacher Jessica Godin said that while she is proud to work in the Saint Paul schools, “our amazing district has come to feel like a sinking ship held together by excellent but overworked teachers and incredible but frazzled and overwhelmed support staff.” She called for more investments in social-emotional learning, community development and discipline.
Pleas for help go unanswered
Former SPPS teacher Debra Walden said that while she worked for the district she regularly made it known that she and her students felt unsafe. “My frustrations and pleas for help were, at best, diminished and at worst completely ignored,” she said.
In a statement that drew some applause, former SPPS teacher Don Allen called for a vote of no confidence for district leaders. “The problem is this dysfunctional district,” Allen said. “It cannot be repaired with the current School Board and superintendent.”
Tracy Bomberg, an SPPS teacher, contended that the district has made life more unsafe for its high school students by cutting transportation. “We took their buses away,” she said. “We forced them onto unsafe Metro Transit, which has gotten progressively worse since the pandemic. The students feel like they have to bring weapons to protect themselves on the buses. And then once they arrive at school, we can’t protect kids from the fights and violence that goes on here.”
School resource officers: A help or hindrance?
At the heart of the forum was the question of whether to bring Saint Paul police officers back into the secondary schools to serve as school resource officers (SROs). That was common practice before June 2020 when the school district severed its contract with the Police Department following the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
In the wake of Scott’s killing, district administrators announced that they would position two Saint Paul police officers outside of Harding and four other high schools for the remainder of that week. At that same February 14 briefing, Gothard noted that “the partnership (between the district and the Police Department) was never extinguished. The partnership never went away. We do work” with the police when the situation calls for a police response.
Henry Scott, a cousin of Devin Scott, was among those at the forum in favor of bringing SROs back to Saint Paul’s schools. According to him, having a police officer in the school hallways would give students pause before perpetrating any violence. “As a kid, if you come into the school and you see an officer, your decision is going to change automatically because you know there’s a police officer there, so you’re going to make different decisions,” Scott said.
Scott implored the School Board to prioritize school safety. “I just think it’s important that you guys listen to the community,” he said. “We feel like you guys ain’t been listening for the last three or four years.”
A father of a Saint Paul Public Schools student testified that he, too, would feel safer if armed police were present in the schools’ hallways. However, others at the forum maintained that SROs would do little to prevent violence. Rather than help, some said, the SROs would open up a school-to-prison pipeline for students of color.
Julia Schumacher, who teaches English as a second language in the district, said she was opposed to SROs. She does not believe that police officers make schools safer. “Our experience as (faculty and staff) shows that the people who make schools safer are the people who are at the schools every day taking care of each other,” she said. “When we work together, we can have safer schools.”
Humboldt High School student Le’Derron Doby said he also did not want to see cops back in the schools. However, he did want action taken to prevent violence, including the use of metal detectors at the entrances of schools.
A need for listening
Many, including Harding sophomore Natalie Weston, called for togetherness and listening as the district works toward making schools safer. “This is a good opportunity for everyone to start talking,” Weston said. “Everyone needs to listen to everyone’s point of view. This is not the first incident where violence has happened in our school.”
Weston said she was discouraged by the lack of engagement from the police officers stationed at Harding after Scott’s death. “Having police in our school could be a good thing, but we need to talk about it. If we have people just standing around, that doesn’t do anything.”
Gothard declined to comment after the forum. District administrators had not made any statements regarding the forum or any actions they would take to address school safety as this issue of MyVillager went to press.
School Board member Chauntyll Allen, in a Facebook post that has since been taken down, did describe bringing cops back to the schools as a “white supremacist” solution. “An SRO with a new name is still a killer cop,” she wrote.
— Casey Ek
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