In a roiled Minneapolis, schools are testing new model for safety

Octavio Jones/Reuters
High schoolers hold a demonstration demanding justice for George Floyd and Daunte Wright during the trial for former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin at the Hennepin County Government Center in Minneapolis April 19, 2021. Last June, students helped influence a school board decision to terminate a Minneapolis Police Department contract to provide school resource officers.
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In Minneapolis, many students and teachers say they have felt on edge after the murder of George Floyd. On Tuesday, a Minneapolis jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on all counts. Students are among those who have been protesting in nearby Brooklyn Center. There, the night before high schools resumed in-person classes last week, Daunte Wright, a former Minneapolis Public Schools student who is Black, was shot and killed by a white police officer. 

For the school district in the middle of this, the events of the past year have required a rethinking about safety. The MPS school board voted last year to end its contract with the police department, and has swapped school resource officers for a cadre of civilian safety specialists. It’s one model for keeping students safe and reflects the steps being taken by a shaken city as it seeks to embrace justice and fairness in its institutions. 

“For a lot of people, what happened on May 25 is still in their head every minute of every day,” high school senior Nathaniel Genene says, referring to the day Mr. Floyd died. 

Why We Wrote This

Students in Minneapolis are at the epicenter of the police-free schools movement. Amid high tensions, the model of moving toward a new culture of safety within schools is being tested and, some say, strengthened.

Update: A Minneapolis jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of all charges in the murder of George Floyd on Tuesday afternoon.

When Nathaniel Genene walked into his Minneapolis high school last week for the first time in over a year he quickly noticed that there was no uniformed police officer standing watch. 

Why We Wrote This

Students in Minneapolis are at the epicenter of the police-free schools movement. Amid high tensions, the model of moving toward a new culture of safety within schools is being tested and, some say, strengthened.

“Usually when you walk in SROs are the first thing you see and the last when you walk out,” he says, using the abbreviation for school resource officers. 

Mr. Genene, a senior at Washburn High School, served as the citywide student representative on the Minneapolis school board last year. He helped push the board to cut ties with the city’s police department last June in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody. Other school systems, including in Portland, Oregon, and Denver followed suit, sparking a wave of districts reconsidering whether officers belong in schools. 

In Minneapolis, where police department contracts with Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) date back to the 1960s, a new cadre of civilian safety support specialists is now in place. And despite challenges here from events outside school doors – the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, the death of Daunte Wright during a traffic stop in nearby Brooklyn Center – some students and staff say that the security culture is slowly becoming strengthened by being more inclusive of students who have asked to remove officers for years.

It’s a window on one model for keeping students safe and reflects the steps being taken by a shaken city as it seeks to embrace justice and fairness in its institutions. It also comes with its own share of controversy, with several principals writing in an open letter that students had been placed in “grave danger” and that the school board had “burned a fragile bridge” by viewing the entire police department in a negative light.

MPS leaders are “responding to calls from students and community, which is really important,” says Katie Pekel, a former principal and director of the Minnesota Principals Academy at the University of Minnesota. She points to research indicating students, especially from historically marginalized groups, view SROs less favorably than administrators. 

In Minneapolis in particular, the relationship between students and the police can be complicated. Many students and staff say they have felt on edge during the trial of Mr. Chauvin. On Tuesday afternoon, a jury found him guilty of all charges in the murder of Mr. Floyd.

Students are also among those who have been protesting in nearby Brooklyn Center, where the night before high school students returned to in-person classes last week, Mr. Wright, a former MPS student who is Black, was shot and killed by a white police officer. Monday, students across the city participated in a statewide teen-led walkout to protest racial injustice. 

For the school district in the middle of this, the events of the past year have required a rethinking about safety. “We’re trying to change how we deliver education, how we meet our kids where they’re at, how we meet their parents where they’re at. That’s a whole systems change that has to happen,” says Jason Matlock, director of emergency management, safety, and security for MPS.

Undergirding the district’s approach is an attempt to better understand why security personnel were called on in the past and how conflicts can be resolved in ways other than bringing in police officers. “We still have to change that whole mindset and that whole feeling of when and why people ask for that type of intervention,” says Mr. Matlock, who notes that in previous years, SRO arrests were often based on staff, parents, or other students in the building requesting assistance in instances such as fights. In a nearby suburban system, arrests dropped after a similar shift from SROs to the use of “safety coaches.”

“For a school to send a message of distrust right at the doorway is now something that schools are trying to avoid; they don’t want to send that message. They want to send a message of welcome and belonging,” says Peter Demerath, associate professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, who studies school culture and school improvement.

Khulia Pringle, a Minneapolis resident and former teacher in St. Paul who served on the interview panel for the district’s new safety support specialist positions, says that the mindset around security should also shift away from emphasis on mass school shootings – which she believes are less of a threat in her community – and toward solving conflicts between individuals.

Chelsea Sheasley/The Christian Science Monitor
A mural outside South High School in Minneapolis, painted by students in 2019, reads, "I am not in the world simply to adapt to it, but rather to transform it." Some students at South High School advocated to remove police officers from schools last year. Students returned to in-person classes on April 12, their first time attending without school resource officers.

“For me, I’m coming from a Black perspective, and nine times out of 10 what’s unsafe has to do with interpersonal relationships and someone from the community can deter that,” says Ms. Pringle, who also advocates on behalf of parents as part of the National Parents Union. “Hire ex-convicts who’ve been in the system and can relate to people. Elders in the Black, Indigenous, Latinx communities are very, very important. If you want to create safety in the schools, all you have to do is bring in the grandmas.” 

A new role 

In the 2019-20 school year, MPS contracted with the Minneapolis Police Department for a $1.1 million annual contract for 14 SROs. Those officers were assigned to cover the district’s more than 32,000 students, across high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools. 

After the contract was terminated last summer, the district hired 11 civilian safety specialists. Two individuals had been on staff previously in this role, bringing the total to 13 – close to the previous number of SROs. The district says the role is not intended to be a direct replacement of SROs.

“I wouldn’t say there are any similarities other than they do support our emergency management and security functions when necessary. But they are civilian. They are not armed, they don’t carry handcuffs or pepper spray or any of those tools, they’re not uniformed, and they have no power of arrest,” says Mr. Matlock, the district’s security director.

Last June, before the school board vote on SROs, Mr. Genene and other students put together an online survey for current and former students. Of more than 2,000 respondents, 88% of current MPS students supported removing SROs from schools and 97% of former MPS students approved.

“I’ve had students express this idea in the past that they walked down the hall and feel like they had a target on their back or sat in the lunch room and felt like the SRO was looking over their shoulder while they were eating,” Mr. Genene says. 

Survey respondents said they instead wanted increased mental health services, restorative justice practices, and more school counselors, social workers, and teachers of color. 

A few students were concerned about removing officers. “I feel very unsafe with everything going on and even before all of this I was scared that every day I stepped into school ... a school shooter would come to our school,” wrote one respondent. 

For Dane McLain, a world history teacher at North Community High School, ending the contract with the Minneapolis Police Department made many students across the city feel more cared for and therefore safer, even though the SRO at North was individually popular and remains the school’s football coach. 

“I think all schools should be representing love and care for students first and foremost. If a student isn’t feeling that way, and if an SRO isn’t contributing to that – and I heard and learned from students that most SROs do not – that pushed me to support the end of the contract.”

Some students interviewed said they didn’t notice the lack of an SRO last week. Others, like Lylian Vang, a freshman at Patrick Henry High School in north Minneapolis, says she did. 

“I feel police officers don’t need to be in schools because we have our staff, counselors, principal,” she says walking home after school last week. “It makes students scared, like you did something wrong or something is wrong and it stresses you out.”

She appreciates how her class discussed the removal of police from schools and thinks a better model is for more counselors and mental health specialists. MPS hired some mental health and counseling staff prior to this school year. But Derek Francis, the district’s manager of counseling services, says there’s still a need for more staff. Counselors are being added to every middle school for the next school year, but there are none in elementary schools. Current counselors carry a caseload of 500-to-1 – a ratio twice that recommended by the American School Counselor Association.  

A main focus has been on hiring the civilian safety specialists. Some local community activists have criticized the decision to include individuals that have some prior law enforcement experience. Mr. Matlock says more of the specialists have backgrounds in education or community programming, but having a team with some prior security experience was important since “at the end of the day, they do have a security role.” 

The district is not allowing the new specialists to be interviewed, citing privacy concerns after their résumés were leaked over the summer to news outlets. But Mr. Matlock says that during remote schooling, specialists have taken security and bias training. They’re also reading books together such as Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns” about the mass migration of Black Americans away from the South, and literature by Black Lives Matters leaders. Specialists visited students disconnected from virtual learning, helped with food distribution, and evaluated school safety plans. Most students and teachers interviewed had not met the specialists assigned to their schools yet. 

Police officers will still be called to school buildings in case of emergencies. “We continue to enjoy a strong relationship with our public schools as we all have the same goals in mind. We continue to support public safety in and around our schools,” wrote John Elder, spokesperson for the Minneapolis Police Department, in a statement to the Monitor. 

Some community pushback

Still, the shift from SROs to safety specialists hasn’t been without criticism. Last October, three high school principals from north Minneapolis penned the open letter saying violence was rising in their community and said both the school board and police department leaders “exhibited over-generalization, surface-level problem solving and short-sightedness.”

“I don’t think a lot of students know about [the new safety specialists], but there has been some pushback from one group at my high school who are saying that we’re just replacing them with more police, which isn’t true,” Zigi Kaiser, a senior at South High School in Minneapolis and member of the CityWide Youth Leadership Council who advocated to remove police from schools. 

Mr. Matlock says that the effort to shift school culture is much broader than the 13 individual specialists. Their positions fit with other district efforts to build trust and equity within schools, such as a plan for a district redesign, which – controversially – will reassign school boundaries for the 2021-22 school year to try and better distribute funding and programming to racially isolated schools.

For now, the thoughts of students are often on the safety of their broader community. Mr. Genene from Washburn High School says that being in school in person for the first time in months and having a conversation in his history class about the shooting of Mr. Wright was “comforting.” But he says that he and many of his friends wish more teachers had talked about current events during their first week back. 

“For a lot of people what happened on May 25 is still in their head every minute of every day,” he says, referring to the day Mr. Floyd died. “And for many, events of the past week showed we’re far from resolving this problem.” 

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