Minneapolis could reduce number of police officers in schools

As it works to close a budget gap, the Minneapolis school board is trying to decide whether to keep the same number of cops working as school resource officers, cut some SROs to save costs, or drop the program entirely.

Minneapolis schools Superintendent Ed Graff is recommending the school board reduce the number of SROs from 16 to 14. The board is expected to vote on a new three-year contract with the Minneapolis Police Department on Aug. 8.

Amir Sharif, who graduated from Southwest High School this year, told school board members Tuesday that police have no place in schools. Noting recent high-profile officer-involved shootings of young African-American men, Sharif says armed police officers in the hallways make many students feel unsafe.

"Students have talked to me a lot about the traumatizing experiences they've had with seeing guns in the cafeteria when they're eating their lunches or when a fight breaks out," Sharif said. "And the first thing that they're worrying about is if the police officer in our school is going to pull out a gun and shoot."

Sharif urged the school board to redirect the $1.2 million spent on police to restorative justice programs aimed at improving students' social skills and teaching them how to resolve conflicts.

But many people who work in the Minneapolis Public Schools stood up in support of the SROs. Lynne Crockett is president of the North High Alumni Association and volunteers in several schools.

Crockett singled out North High SRO Charles Adams for particular praise. She says Adams — who's also the school's football coach — helped diffuse a tense situation several summers ago after a shooting on her block.

"There were some young people closing in. Officer Adams turned around, looked at them and said 'you know me, turn around and go back.' It wasn't an argument or a debate, it was a statement, and they turned around and walked away," Crockett said. "If [Adams] hadn't had the relationship with them from being in the schools, I'm sure we would have had a different outcome."

Critics of school resource officers say they serve as the entry point to the criminal justice system for young people of color and are the first stop on the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

That may have been the case a decade ago, but not anymore, said Tom Arneson, managing attorney for Hennepin County's Juvenile Prosecution Division.

Arneson said in the 2006-07 school year, Minneapolis SROs referred 919 students for prosecution, most of them for disorderly conduct — not a good way to deal with day-to-day behavior problems.

"Our office created an initiative to work with the schools, work with law enforcement to change the culture, to change the idea that this was helpful to refer students for minor misbehavior in the schools," Arneson said.

This past school year SROs sent Arneson just 66 prosecution referrals, a huge drop from a decade ago. Minneapolis Deputy Police Chief Bruce Folkens says most of those were for crimes such as assault and bringing weapons to school.

"Our SROs are doing a lot more problem-solving [when it comes to] fights, breaking the kids up, de-escalating the situation, talking to the parents and students on both sides of that issue and trying to resolve it without putting those kids into the criminal justice system," Folkens said.

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