St. Paul school board OKs new contract for police officers

After controversy over the role of police officers in its schools, the St. Paul school district has a new approach. The school board approved a contract with St. Paul police Tuesday. The district says this latest agreement better defines how officers will interact with students.

Highland Park senior Davina Newman said she gets uncomfortable seeing a police officer in the halls at school. She said the police presence can be intimidating.

"Seeing someone come into your building with all of that really scary gear on — that's your school, you know, you're supposed to go there to learn, not to feel threatened by someone who gets paid a large amount of money to be there," Newman said.

St. Paul's use of what are called "school resource officers" has drawn criticism this year. There was a trespassing arrest at Central High School in May that critics called excessively violent, especially after a video made the social media rounds. The incident sparked student protest.

A few months earlier, a student group surveyed peers about the officers. The group did not recommend removing officers from the schools, but said the district should clarify the officers' role.

On Tuesday night the St. Paul school board sought that clarification. The new contract provides seven officers assigned to district high schools and two mobile officers. The one-year agreement is projected to cost the district $884,499.47.

Jackie Turner said the district has had lots of feedback and welcomed it. Turner, St. Paul schools' chief engagement officer, said the district did not consider eliminating school resource officers; teachers she talked to say they're needed. And according to the district, the St. Paul principals' association recently said it strongly supports having officers in schools to promote safety and a positive climate.

But Turner said officers will meet monthly with staff and students to discuss school issues. They'll also report monthly on interactions with students, and data will be collected on the interactions.

Turner said the contract also makes it clear that officers aren't responsible for student discipline — they deal with criminal behavior.

"We've come a long ways. It's not perfect, but it's leaps and bounds from where we started years ago. And it's leaps and bounds from where we started even in April," Turner said. "I think everyone can see themselves in this contract — the students, the police, the principals."

The new contract also aims to boost positive interactions between students and police. Officers will participate in activities at the start of school. And they have new uniforms, designed to be less intimidating. A St. Paul student will get to submit interview questions for potential officers.

St. Paul police spokesperson Steve Linders said officers are already building positive relationships with students.

"They keep the schools safe, they serve as mentors, they provide advice to students, they build relationships, and they're positive role models for the students in the schools, and that's important," Linders said.

In the end, the board approved the contract with five "yes" votes and one abstention.

Board Member Steve Marchese said the conversation about police in schools should continue, although he supports the agreement.

"We still have to get clear about the overall purpose for why want to have officers in our schools," Marchese said. "To my mind that has to support the kind of culture and climate that we wish to see in our buildings. And that we should start with the kind of culture and climate we want in our buildings first, and then think through what is the staffing that we need, and who are the people that we need to make that happen."

Board Member John Brodrick said he'd like to revisit how much the city contributes. This year's projected bill for the school district is slightly higher than last year's projection. The city of St. Paul will pay about 10 percent of the total cost.