Newspaper article

Police Officers in Minnesota Schools: Common, Controversial and Not Regulated by the State — at All

Newspaper article

Police Officers in Minnesota Schools: Common, Controversial and Not Regulated by the State — at All

Article excerpt

In a fairly constant stream of press conferences, bill proposals and speeches given at student-led rallies outside the state Capitol building, lawmakers have made it clear that enhancing school safety is a priority this legislative session.

Many of the gun-control proposals championed by student activists in the wake of the recent Parkland, Florida school shooting continue to face steep opposition. But proposals to increase state funding earmarked for school safety seem to have support on both sides of the aisle.

Those dollars could be used for things like adding laminated glass and emergency communication systems to school buildings, along with covering the costs of additional school counselors, social workers and other student support staff.

They could also be used to bring more police officers into schools.

Law enforcement officials who are assigned to work at schools are commonly known as school resource officers, or SROs. Given their training and uniform — often including a gun — their presence inside a school building may put the minds of some students, educators and parents at ease.

But opponents of SROs have long raised concerns that having police working inside schools criminalizes student behavior — particularly when it involves students of color — that should be handled by school administrators. Students would be better served by an investment in more school counselors and other licensed support staff, they contend.

In committee hearings, state lawmakers have touched on some of the concerns — and inconsistencies — regarding the use of SROs. For instance, in a House Education Finance Committee hearing on March 6, Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, shared an anecdote about an elementary student stealing a piece of candy out of an educator’s room and the school bringing in the SRO to “deal with this as a criminal issue.”

“What sort of training are school administrators getting to ensure they are using the officer within the scope of their professional training?” he asked Randy Johnson, director of the Minnesota School Safety Center.

The center, which is housed within the state Department of Public Safety’s division of homeland security and emergency management, is the only state agency that supports SROs. But it doesn’t regulate how SROs are used in schools, what sort of training they receive, or even who foots the bill. The department can’t even say, definitively, how many SROs are currently working at schools.

“At this point it does fall under the realm of local control,” Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, said in a phone interview. “But it raises other questions: If they are going to be working in our schools, should we make sure that there’s a certain level of training for these officers, who are spending their time with our kids? The Parkland issue has people looking at this in kind of a different way, I think, and asking these questions differently.”

Decades of cops in schools

School resource officers date back to the late-’50s, with a program in Flint, Michigan aimed at smoothing relationships between students and police, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. Over time, the practice caught on in districts across the country, with officers acting variously as counselors, coaches, helping with schoolwork and serving as mentors, according to the Atlantic.

In the 1990s, when zero-tolerance behavior policies, which prescribed strict enforcement of school rules, were in vogue, and some argue made officers’ roles more punitive. In the late- 1990s and early 2000s, the U.S. Justice Department’s COPS in Schools grants increased the number of officers in schools.

By the 2009-10 school year, an estimated 43 percent of schools nationwide had security guards, school resource officers or sworn law enforcement officers at their schools on day a week or more, according to a National Center for Education Statistics report. …

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