The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Under D.C. mayor’s budget, school police program would remain intact despite strong calls for its elimination

D.C. police Chief Robert J. Contee III and Mayor Muriel E. Bowser support keeping school resource officers in place. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

D.C. police Chief Robert J. Contee III sat in front of a virtual D.C. Council meeting this month and defended the mayor’s decision to keep the school police program intact in next year’s budget -- despite the recommendation from the council-appointed Police Reform Commission that police be removed from schools this fall.

He described standing over a student who was shot inside Ballou High School in Southeast Washington in 2004 and later died. That shooting led to the creation of the now-controversial School Resource Officer program that trains armed police officers to patrol schools.

And then Contee, who grew up in Northeast Washington, spoke for the parents, saying he doesn’t feel their voices have been sufficiently heard. He told lawmakers he has children in the school system and wants police nearby to protect them.

“I don’t want to be arresting our kids, increasing the school-to-prison pipeline,” Contee told members of the public safety committee. “I’m the parent of a D.C. public school child, and my vote counts as well.”

His testimony was met with sharp questioning from Council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4). They asked whether the chief or mayor considered youth perspectives or the implication that this could lead to more policing of Black and Hispanic children.

The impassioned back-and-forth unfolded one year after mass protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd spurred calls across the country to rethink the approach to policing in communities and schools. And it took place two months after the police reform commission delivered its expansive report, which called for curtailing the presence of police in the city.

Police Reform Commission recommends sweeping changes to policing in District

“The daily presence of police officers in schools is antithetical to environments meant to foster learning and positive development,” the report concluded. “Youth of color in particular often do not feel comfortable, valued, or safe in educational spaces where they are interacting with representatives of a system that generally views Black and Brown people as a threat.”

The national debate over whether to remove police from schools reflects the tensions that were revealed in the broader “defund the police” movement. Large groups of residents, activists and city leaders are calling for funding to be stripped from police departments and put into alternative justice programs. But many residents in the most violent neighborhoods say it’s more complicated than that, and while they want to confront racial bias in law enforcement, they also want more police officers on their dangerous streets.

On a D.C. street beset by gun violence, calls to fix policing, not defund it

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) proposed adding $500,000 next fiscal year to the school police program that would be used to fund more training. Lawmakers last year voted to take away the police department’s $23 million annual contract with the school system to hire more than 300 unarmed private security guards at schools. The school system now holds the contract with the security firm and has more control of hiring.

Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn said the city is working with interested schools on a pilot program that would allow schools to replace one security officer with a staff member trained to address behavior issues.

Ultimately though, top city officials rejected the commission's conclusion, saying the commission is filled with activists, not people who reflect the will of D.C. residents. The mayor’s administration conducted an anonymous survey of 205 D.C. principals and vice principals asking whether they supported the elimination of school resource officers.

Sixty-seven percent of them “strongly” or “somewhat” opposed getting rid of the officers. Just 12 percent supported removing officers from schools, and 20 percent had no opinion. The police department has 90 officers dedicated to the school resource officer program, 77 of whom are out in the field traveling between the city’s nearly 250 traditional public and charter school campuses.

High schools and schools in high-poverty neighborhoods typically have more officers assigned to them, according to city documents.

When school leaders call for police help, a school resource officer who knows the school community and is trained to handle children is supposed to be dispatched.

“If you take that away, and you call in police, you may not get one that is trained with youth,” said Christopher Geldart, the acting deputy mayor for public safety and justice. “Everyone would love the day when we wouldn’t need security in our schools.”

He said that while there is no formal rule, police are not supposed to execute warrants on school grounds for crimes that do not occur at school. But officers can arrest students if there is a violent crime happening at school.

In all, city officials said resource officers made 62 school-based arrests and other D.C. police officers made 36 school-based arrests in the 2019-2020 academic year. “School-based” includes arrests made during off-campus school activities.

Niya White, principal at Center City Public Charter School in Congress Heights, said the resource officers are crucial to keeping her students and staff safe.

She said she needs those officers to help students remain safe as they travel to and from school. Cars are often speeding in front of her school and, despite calls to local officials to change the traffic rules, it’s school resource officers who are there to slow down cars and make sure her students can cross the street.

White said she has had to throw her body over her students to protect them at a bus stop when she heard gunshots nearby. One time, two students from a nearby high school pulled out knives during a fight in front of Center City at dismissal, and an officer who was there knew them by name de-escalated the situation, she said.

White said the most frequent impetus for calling the police is over custody fights that turn violent on school grounds and said her staff is not equipped to intervene.

“Drawing conclusions about school resource officers without actually seeing or being part of the experience that unfolds in schools is unproductive and uninformed decision-making,” White said.

After deaths of classmates, D.C. students say they feel unsafe on their daily commutes

Christy Lopez, the police reform commission’s co-chair and director of the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown Law, said the group included two educators and that members did talk to parents.

Samantha Davis, the head of the after-school program Black Swan Academy, co-chaired the commission’s committee on police on schools. Students in the program have pushed to remove police from schools and put more mental health workers on campuses.

Lopez said one concern from principals who supported keeping police in schools was a fear the District would fail to commit to funding additional counselors and mental health professionals to replace departing officers. She said such a commitment would “make people feel better” about replacing the officers.

“There is no reason students need a uniformed officer with handcuffs and a gun to feel safe,” Lopez said. “You can create a safe environment if you actually invest in people trained to understand where fears are coming from and how to deal with them, and to respond to kids needs.”

Nicole Johnson Douglas’s 7-year-old son attends a charter school in Southeast Washington. She said her son wants to be an officer and has a personal relationship with the officer assigned to his school and frequently talks to him. When she got a crime alert that an incident occurred near his school, she could call the officer or the district’s police office to ask what was going on and make sure everyone was safe.

“I believe that school resource officers still can have a place in our school,” she said. “For my son to see a Black male that looks like him as a police officer, that he could come up to him, it gave me comfort that he will be okay.” 

Local newsletters: Local headlines (8 a.m.) | Afternoon Buzz (4 p.m.)

Like PostLocal on Facebook | Follow @postlocal on Twitter | Latest local news