Harding High stabbing renews debate over cops in St. Paul schools

community members hold signs at St. Paul school board meeting
Community members hold signs at a St. Paul Public Schools board meeting on Tuesday. Many expressed concerns about safety after a Harding High School student was stabbed earlier in the month.
Matt Sepic | MPR News

While safety wasn’t on the St. Paul school board’s official meeting agenda Tuesday night, it dominated the public comment period.

The killing of 15-year-old Devin Scott on February 10 — allegedly by a 16-year-old fellow Harding High student — renewed the debate in St. Paul over school resource officers, also called SROs. 

Soon after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, the district severed ties with the St. Paul Police Department, which pulled its seven SROs from Harding and other buildings. 

Valeria Barrios-Sanchez was a ninth grader the last time a police officer was posted to Harding. This year, she’s a senior there and was the first in line to speak at the school board meeting. Barrios-Sanchez said she felt safe as a freshman with an SRO present, but now she said it’s difficult to learn amid frequent violence. 

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“I am a senior, and this is supposed to be my most memorable year. It will be. Unfortunately, I have to remember it as the year I witnessed a homicide,” Barrios-Sanchez said. “I implore the board to make a decision to help the future generations at Harding.” 

Chineze Okolo is also a senior but has left the St. Paul district. She has the opposite view on SROs. 

“I go to school to learn, and whether it’s a security guard or a school resource officer it makes me feel uncomfortable because I think teachers should stand in the hallway, not somebody who’s carrying a potentially lethal weapon,” Okolo said.

Parent and educator Ali Alowonle said there are better ways to address violence.

“I’m urging you to divest from SROs and invest in our students with restorative practices, ethnic studies curriculum and instruction, reimagining family and community involvement and engagement,” Alowonle said.

She said putting police in schools can push routine disciplinary matters into the criminal justice system and increase racial disparities.

“Empirical data show that SRO presence in schools increases the likelihood that school officials will refer students to law enforcement, even for low level offenses described ambiguously as disorderly conduct,” she said.

Since halting the use of SROs nearly three years ago, the St. Paul Public Schools have turned to several dozen school support liaisons to provide security. They don’t have guns, but do carry handcuffs and pepper spray. After the homicide at Harding, Superintendent Joe Gothard assigned a third liaison to the school. 

Ben Wright, whose daughter graduated from Central High School last year, urged the school board to bring back SROs or something similar. 

“If we don’t address school safety, we will continue to victimize our most vulnerable population, which are young Black men. They are the ones being shot and stabbed. For sure there is a school to prison pipeline. But there is also a school to hospital to morgue pipeline,” Wright said.

Superintendent Gothard, who supported keeping the SROs in 2020, has not explicitly called for their return. But at a news conference last week, he did say that he wants to redefine the partnership between the district and St. Paul police. 

Ultimately any decision on reinstating school resource officers — or any other major changes to safety policy—– will be up to the seven-member board of education.