The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fueled by protests, school districts across the country cut ties with police

Denver School Board At Large Director Tay Anderson, center, dispatches participants during a protest outside the City/County Building over the death of George Floyd. The board voted Thursday to phase Denver police out of its schools. (David Zalubowski/AP)

For years, civil rights activists have worked to remove police officers from the nation’s public schools, arguing that they pose a greater risk to students of color than the intruders they’re supposed to guard against. But in the wake of George Floyd’s death, a shift that seemed impossible only a few weeks ago is underway: Several major school systems have canceled their contracts with police, and others are under mounting pressure to do the same.

Within eight days of Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, as the city convulsed with massive demonstrations, school board members there voted unanimously to end the district’s contract with the city police department. The superintendent in Portland, Ore., followed suit two days later.

This week, more dominoes fell. The Denver School Board voted unanimously Thursday night to phase police out of its schools. On Wednesday in Seattle, the school board voted to suspend its contract with police for a year. And in Oakland this week, after police there used tear gas to disperse teens demonstrating for police-free schools, the school board passed the “George Floyd Resolution to Eliminate the Oakland Schools Police Department.” Nearby, the West Contra Costa Unified School District voted unanimously to end its contract with police.

Several other districts are considering similar moves, and others are under pressure to take action: Students in Phoenix have started a petition to remove police from campuses, and young people in New York and Chicago have taken to the streets to demand police-free schools. The Chicago Teachers Union backs their effort.

Derrianna Ford, a 16-year-old who attends Chicago’s Mather High School, is among the teens protesting to get police out of schools. She said that the three school resource officers at her school do not make her feel safer and that she believes the money could be better spent. The school has just one counselor and no full-time nurse, which means it’s a police officer who responds when a student gets hurt. The school system has a $33 million contract with police.

“Even if you hurt yourself, they’re calling the SRO,” Ford said. “The first thing you should call is a nurse — but our nurses are only here Tuesday. If you’re not hurt on Tuesday, it’s your loss.”

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The swift action signals a remarkable about-face for U.S. schools, which have spent much of the past two decades beefing up security in response to the scourge of school shootings. Civil rights activists have fought for years to get police out of schools but had seen little progress. The votes are yet another sign of the widespread impact of Floyd’s death and the resulting protests, which have pushed cities to overhaul police departments and inspired activists to topple monuments.

Nathaniel Genene is a rising high school senior and the student representative for the Minneapolis School Board. He said he watched, over and over, the video of Floyd’s arrest, which captures the 46-year-old black man yelling and gasping for air while an officer kneels on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. The video kept him up at night. Later, he heard stories of his classmates getting tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed by police during protests.

“Would we invest in an institution that is currently being investigated … for human rights abuses when 60 percent of our students are students of color?” Genene said in an interview. “I could not imagine a positive school climate in any school with an MPD officer walking through the hall."

Minneapolis Board of Education votes to kick police out of public schools over George Floyd’s death

Kimberly Ellison, chair of the Minneapolis school board, watched, too. “I thought of all my students, my children, my sons, the students we have in our schools,” Ellison said in the days after the board voted. “It could have been any one of them.”

Police were introduced in schools in the 1950s to combat crime on school grounds, but their numbers skyrocketed after the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado that left 15 dead — at the time the deadliest massacre on school grounds. The Justice Department poured millions into funding police officers on campus, to guard against outside threats and respond to growing fears about rising crime among youths.

The officers became a fixture in public schools, with many receiving training to become “student resource officers,” or SROs. Nearly 60 percent of schools and nearly 90 percent of high schools now have an officer at least part-time. Some states sought to increase their numbers again following the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which left 17 people dead. Florida began requiring all schools to have a police officer or armed security guard. South Carolina invested millions into putting officers in schools, and Maryland, where an SRO helped stop a school shooter, invested millions into expanding them.

Proponents see police as essential in keeping students safe: responding in the event of a school shooting, ferreting out students who could turn violent, breaking up fights and swiftly addressing students caught with drugs or guns. In the 2017-2018 school year, schools reported more than 960,000 violent incidents on school grounds, according to data collected by the Education Department.

But civil rights groups say that officers pose a threat to many students, and especially students of color and students with disabilities. Black and Latino students are more likely to have police officers in their schools, increasing the likelihood of arrest, federal data shows. In the 2015-2016 school year, black students accounted for 15 percent of the school population nationally but accounted for 31 percent of arrests, according to federal data, despite studies showing that black students do not necessarily break the rules at greater rates than their white peers.

Racial disparities in school discipline are growing, federal data show

Those arrests can turn violent. And just as grainy cellphone video of police shootings and violent arrests has helped shed light on police brutality, images captured by students on school buses, in hallways and in classrooms have revealed what can go wrong when officers confront students. A 2015 cellphone video captured a white officer putting a black teenager in a chokehold, then tearing her from her desk and throwing her to the ground at a high school in Spring Valley, S.C. The deputy was called when the student would not put away her cellphone. Other videos have shown officers pepper-spraying middle-schoolers to break up a fight and tackling an 11-year-old girl to the ground.

Tay Anderson, a 21-year-old school board member in Denver, has become the de facto leader of the Black Lives Matter protests there. He worries about setting up children for failure by having police in schools. Anderson said police have issued 4,500 citations to students at Denver schools since 2014 — and that most have gone to black or Latino students.

“The reason why we want to move forward without Denver police is simple: We don’t want our schools to be ground zero for the school-to-prison pipeline,” Anderson said. The board voted unanimously Thursday night to phase out police in schools over the next 18 months.

Some school leaders say the right training and the right arrangement can mitigate many of the concerns civil rights activists have raised.

Paul Kelly, principal of Elk Grove High School in Illinois, said having an SRO on campus makes him feel more secure. But he acknowledges he has some assets that other schools might lack: a good working relationship with the local police department, the authority to take the lead on student disciplinary issues and adequate mental health resources. The primary role of the officer, he said, is to guard against outside threats.

“We don’t view our SRO as a disciplinarian or as someone who is primarily responsible for intervening with respect to student behaviors,” Kelly said.

Don Bridges has worked as a school resource officer in Baltimore County since 1997. He’s trained SROs all over the country, he said, including in Chicago and Ferguson, Mo., arriving there after an officer killed recent high school graduate Mike Brown.

Many of the problems people ascribe to school police can be resolved with better training, he said — teaching officers about adolescent brain development and about how to mentor students.

“When we look at programs that are having problems, what we see is that law enforcement is just putting officers in schools without guidance,” Bridges said. “You do not police a school in the same way you police the streets.”

Trained properly, Bridges said, school resource officers can help repair the bond between police and communities of color that might harbor mistrust of law enforcement.

But Anderson countered that police who patrol schools are not necessary for school safety. Denver Public Schools has a robust armed school security force, he said, which can swiftly respond to school shootings but cannot arrest students.

It is also not clear what difference officers make to school safety. Many students say they feel less safe, or even criminalized, with school police. And having a school police officer is no guarantee that a school shooting will be stopped. A 2018 Washington Post analysis found school police officers rarely made a difference in how school shootings unfolded. And students had mixed opinions about school resource officers.

Scarred by school shootings

School police have also proved costly for districts. Kentucky’s Jefferson County Public Schools, which encompasses Louisville, decided to scrap school police last year when faced with a $35 million budget deficit. At a time when the New York City schools are facing budget cuts of more than $800 million and a hiring freeze, Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed adding about $20 million to next year’s budget for safety officers, bringing the total to $427 million. The proposal sparked protests.

Civil rights activists say the money could be better spent. The American Civil Liberties Union found that there were more than a million students in the United States who attended a school where there is a police officer but no counselor. And some 22 million students attend schools that have funding for police officers but not social workers, the group says. In the nation’s capital, a city council member said this week he would like to divert spending on police in schools to mental health professionals.

Caleb Reed, who also attends Mather High in Chicago, said the school resource officers often seem to make things worse. He said he was arrested two years ago when he walked away from an officer who asked for his student identification at a basketball game. He ended up spending six hours at a police station, he said.

“I felt angry. My emotions felt big,” Reed said. “But I tried to stay humble — because they expect that from every black person. They expect every black person to act out.”

“I think they see us as dangerous.”

Laura Meckler contributed to this report.