Students of color press St. Paul district to cut ties with Police Department

Miski Omar, 19, speaks at a rally.
Miski Omar, 19, speaks at a rally Monday to get police out of St. Paul Public Schools. Omar began organizing this campaign during her freshman year four years ago. The school board will consider the question Tuesday.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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By Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

During her freshman year at Central High School four years ago, Miski Omar joined a campaign to get police off campus after what she called “multiple terrible experiences” with school police officers.

A white officer’s arrest of a former Black student for trespassing, captured on video, went viral. In the video, the officer can be seen forcing the student to the ground and putting his knee on the student’s back. The student is crying out in pain, saying the officer Maced him, and repeatedly asks the officer to get off him. Around the same time, another officer allegedly “brutalized multiple Muslim girls,” Miski says, resulting in one of their hijabs coming off.

Through a partnership with the St. Paul Public Schools, the St. Paul Police Department places an officer in each of seven high schools, including Central. SPPD’s website describes these officers as holding the roles of educator, counselor, coach and mentor. But some students and recent graduates say a police presence in schools gets in the way of an education for many Black students.

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Miski and the boy who was arrested then were both part of the Pan African Student Union, which consisted of students who came from families of both enslaved Africans and Black immigrants. The organization led a walkout of about 100 students in protest of the school district’s relationship with the Police Department. 

Four years to the day after that officer knelt on a Black student in St. Paul, a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck, killing him. The Minneapolis Public School system quickly announced it would be terminating its contract with the Police Department. Miski hoped St. Paul would be next. She organized an email campaign to the St. Paul school board, generating over 1,000 emails asking them to end the schools’ relationship with the Police Department.

Now Miski and her classmates might have an opportunity to finish what they started. The St. Paul school board could vote on a measure to remove police from schools on Tuesday evening. Students and alumni led a rally Monday afternoon to encourage the school board to terminate the contract.

“I think it’s a very hopeful time right now,” said Miski, now 19, who graduated from Central last year.

Saffiyah Aziz Muhammad, 21, led protests with the Pan African Student Union during Miski’s freshman year and returned to Central High School for Monday’s rally. Removing police from schools is an important step toward true safety, she said. Police too often fail to see Black children as children, she said, which compromises their safety.

Instead of spending money on the police, she’d like to see St. Paul schools invest in counselors and technology. She attended middle school and her first years of high school in the suburbs before transferring to Central her junior year, and said that those resources were more readily available in her previous schools.

Students, alumni and community members hold signs.
Students, alumni and community members hold signs Monday calling for an end to police in the St. Paul Public Schools.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

The rally featured spoken word poetry, chants, dances, and speeches from students, recent graduates, parents, and community members to a crowd of about 100 people. Between Mexica Aztec dance performances from the Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli and Kalpulli Hutzillin dance groups, one of the dancers took the microphone.

“We are here to stand in solidarity and honor our Black relatives who have been murdered at the hands of police,” Atquetzali Quiroz said.

Atquetzali, 17, whose parents are from Mexico and the Philippines, just graduated from St. Paul Public Schools’ Open World Learning Community School. Many of the Aztec dancers are SPPS students or graduates, she added. 

“We have seen how these police come into the school environment and mess everything up, and particularly target Black, Indigenous and brown students,” she said. “And this is why we need them out. We need them out right now.”

Mexica Aztec dancers.
Mexica Aztec dancers with the groups Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli and Kalpulli Huitzillin perform at the rally Monday. Many of the dancers attended St. Paul Public Schools.
Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Mickies Kiros, a recent Central grad, said removing police from schools would help students feel safer.

“This is an institution of learning, not an institution of fear,” he said. “It’s not fair for students to feel like they’re not safe. Because I guarantee we’ll feel more safe when there are no police.”

Mickies, a runner, said his mother didn’t allow him to run for two weeks after Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger, was chased down and killed by two white men in Georgia while out for a run. He urged his fellow members of the East African diaspora to take policing issues facing Black people seriously.

“The police officer’s not going to ask, ‘So are you, like, Ethiopian?” he said. “It doesn’t work like that in our society. I urge everybody that’s in immigrant families to have these conversations.”

Emceeing the rally, Miski led the crowd in a moment of remembrance for Marny Xiong, the 31-year-old Hmong woman who was board chair of the St. Paul Public Schools until she died earlier this month of coronavirus.

“Marny was down for the cause,” Miski said. “She was always so generous and so kind and I just knew we were coming from the same place.” Marny could have been the decisive vote to cut ties with the St. Paul Police Department, she added. Miski led the crowd in a moment of silence in honor of Xiong’s memory.

The students displayed a “report card” for school board members based on their expected vote. Board members Chauntyll Allen and Jeanelle Foster, who are expected to vote to cut ties with SPPD, received an A. Next to Xiong’s name was written “Rest In Power.” One board member received an F grade, and the other three were marked as undecided. 

The Student Engagement and Advancement Board, which works to amplify student voices to the board and administration, said in a statement that the group’s position that school resource officers were more harmful than beneficial has been consistent since 2016. While SEAB noted that St. Paul schools have reduced the role of officers in student discipline since that time, the student board stands with the call to eliminate the contract altogether.

The right decision, the student board said, was to follow the example of the Minneapolis Public Schools. “Let us be another example of how we can make positive progress during these uncertain times.”

After the rally, and a drive-by caravan to school board members’ homes, Miski said it was good to see so many of her peers come out. It was the culmination of years of work, she said, but also years of being tired of seeing police and guns and harassment of Black students.

“I want students who go to SPPS to feel valued and have the support to be able to flourish,” she said. “I’m hoping that members will make the right decision.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.