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Violence-plagued schools hit reverse on post-George Floyd decisions to kick police off campuses

Political leaders who raced to kick police officers out of schools after the murder of George Floyd three years ago are quietly bringing cops back amid growing concerns over brawls, drugs and weapons on campuses.

Nearly three dozen school districts in the U.S. removed police officers from schools within a year after Floyd’s slaying in May 2020. Some of the nation’s largest school systems, including Los Angeles County Public Schools and Chicago Public Schools, slashed funding for their police programs by as much as half in the aftermath.

Many of the decisions were motivated by a perceived racial bias in enforcement efforts by campus police.

The American Civil Liberties Union cited data in 2017 showing non-White students had a disproportionate number of interactions with the in-school police, and were more likely than their White counterparts to face legal troubles on school grounds. The activism unleashed in the wake of Floyd’s death convinced school systems from Oakland, California, to Columbus, Ohio, to remove their school resource officers, the formal name for the campus cops.

“The country was reeling from the George Floyd killing,” Jacque Patterson, an at-large member of the District of Columbia’s State Board of Education, told The Washington Times. “There’s a trigger there for many people who live in communities that are underserved or marginalized, and so that trickled into the schools itself.”

But many of the districts that showed police officers the exit have found that disorder and violence have filled the void left behind. Wild fights between gangs of students, rampant drug use in schools and an alarming number of guns and knives found their way into classrooms without law enforcement on premises.

School districts across the country that slashed budgets for campus police have restored those funds for the upcoming school year. 

“We were seeing a spike in the number of weapons coming into school, and we needed to take a proactive approach to addressing that,” Scott Baldermann, a member of the Denver Public Schools’ Board of Education, told The Times.

The impetus for Denver’s policy change was a March shooting at that city’s East High School.

Police said 17-year-old student Austin Lyle shot two administrators while being patted down for weapons, which the teen had agreed to due to past behavioral issues. The teen then fled the area and later killed himself, according to local reports.  

Mr. Baldermann, who was part of the board’s unanimous vote to remove police from schools in 2020, led the charge in June to bring cops back — albeit in a hybrid fashion.

The Board of Education’s approved proposal allows the DPS superintendent to determine if a police officer needs to be stationed at a given school. The move is in line with the board’s updated structure, in which elected officials craft policy limits for the school system, but they don’t micromanage day-to-day operations.

Denver’s reversal is similar to the about-face local school boards in the D.C. area have done.

Montgomery County Public Schools in the Maryland suburbs voted to remove police from schools beginning in the 2021 school year. After a student shot a 15-year-old at Magruder High School in January 2022, the school board didn’t waste time revising the district’s relationship with police.

The school system’s new Community Engagement Officer program operates much like Denver’s, where police are dispatched from a central location on an as-needed basis.  

Alexandria City Public Schools in the Virginia suburbs only made it a few months into its officer-less school year before school administrators pleaded for police to come back.

The school board and city council voted to remove cops from schools ahead of the 2021-22 academic year. A number of incidents during the first two months of class — including two students being arrested separately for bringing a knife and a gun to campus — influenced school officials to reinstate the resource officers.

Not every school is rethinking the issue. 

Public schools in the District have stayed the course on their gradual wind down of the police presence. All resource officers will be phased out of District schools by 2025.

This is in spite of a recent report from D.C.’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety that said officers recovered 77 knives, 15 tasers and five guns at schools during the 2021-22 school year.  

Some school leaders believe the D.C. Council’s refusal to restore funding for the SRO program — which Mayor Muriel Bowser has pushed for in the past two budget cycles — stems from ideological, rather than practical, reasons.  

“It’s all about politics. I’m not gonna lie to you,” Mr. Patterson, the member of D.C.’s State Board of Education, told The Times. “I think a lot of times we try to act like politics don’t play a part in the decision-making of actual politicians.”

Mr. Patterson added that council members are trying to navigate constituent groups who are adamantly against bringing police back to schools. The SBOE member, who also works as an executive for the KIPP DC public schools, said local lawmakers are “making sure that we appear responsive to the entities that don’t want our SROs and not just arbitrarily reverse course.”  

Still, he said, families living in areas most affected by the District’s crime issues were far more supportive of keeping cops in school than those who live in safer areas.

It’s a nationwide theme that parents are broadly in favor of the police programs in their children’s schools, according to one trade association.

“Some of the feedback we were seeing on community surveys were parents, in large numbers, were saying they want the SROs,” Mo Canady, the executive director of National Association of School Resource Officers, told The Times. “But some of the school boards, apparently, were so caught up in the activism, maybe they ignored that.”

Mr. Baldermann, the Denver school board member, said the community response to bringing police back to campus was “overwhelmingly supportive.”

He also said police made fewer arrests and handed out fewer tickets during the final two months of this past school year — when cops returned to campus after the East High shooting — compared to the 2019-20 school year.

Mr. Baldermann said the higher arrest and ticket numbers before Floyd’s death were partly due to school administrators asking SROs to handle incidents that should’ve been addressed with other resources.

Metropolitan Madison Public Schools in Wisconsin was another early adopter of removing SROs from their hallways in June 2020.

The state’s second-largest school system moved away from police in schools to focus more on restorative justice — where practitioners work toward building relationships with troublesome students and getting at the root of their behavioral issues as opposed to trying to discipline them.  

Eugenia Highland, who works for the YWCA Madison, a nonprofit with restorative justice workers in three Madison middle schools, said keeping cops in schools creates a culture that “perpetuates punishment, and fear, and racism … all these systems of oppression.”

“There’s tons of research that shows how having a police officer in school disproportionately impacts students of color, and the criminalization, arrests and violence toward the students of color,” Ms. Highland told The Times. “It’s key in the school-to-prison pipeline.”

A January survey on safety in Madison public schools found that some students, parents and teachers were concerned about fighting and drug use in schools. Some respondents said they felt there were little or no consequences for students who brought weapons on campus.

Ms. Highland said it’s hard to say these sentiments are due to the shortcomings of restorative justice practices. To her, the school system hiring only one justice worker per school isn’t enough to produce the positive culture change that’s needed. Violence-plagued schools hit reverse on post-George Floyd decisions to kick police off campuses

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