In some Minnesota schools, students return but police do not

Anthony Lonetree, Mara Klecker, Star Tribune
·6 min read

High school students are back in class in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Hopkins, but there's a change in the hallways: no armed police officers.

All three districts cut ties with school resource officers (SROs), whose presence brought anxiety to many. Aides monitor the halls at Hopkins High, while in Minneapolis and St. Paul, schools are deploying new security forces designed to be more student-friendly while also trained to de-escalate unruly behavior.

The emphasis is on building relationships, and it was on display in a recent St. Paul Public Schools video showing two of its new "school support liaisons" mingling with kids at a tennis court and at Johnson High while urging people to download the district's MySPPS "tip line" app.

"When you see us driving around the streets of St. Paul, feel free to wave," Bee Xiong, one of the liaisons, says in a voice-over. "We love to stop by to speak with students, families and community members."

The breezy presentation is a departure from emotionally charged comments about officers and handguns and a racial reckoning that accompanied school board votes last year to discontinue the use of school resource officers. Action came in the wake of George Floyd's death last May, but it has taken months because of the pandemic for students to begin seeing what school safety looks like without SROs.

Peter Demerath, a University of Minnesota professor who has described the SRO votes as a "historic moment," said he was encouraged by the attention being given to students. He studied student-and-staff dynamics at St. Paul's Harding High and says students succeed when they know they are trusted and the staff believes in them.

School districts can have sound security plans and good working relationships with police departments, he said, without "having an armed officer in the building that causes students to feel distrusted as they enter."

But John Brodrick, the lone school board member to vote against removing police in St. Paul, said recently: "Nobody has yet described a plan that assures our students will be as safe without SROs as they were with them in our schools."

Change in MinneapolisThe discussion about placing a "public safety support specialist" in all Minneapolis high schools started long before the school board's unanimous vote last June to cut ties with the Police Department. At the time, the district had two support specialists working with school resource officers.

Ending the police contract freed up about $1.1 million annually, allowing the district to hire 11 more support specialists who, according to the job description, work to "ensure safety by consulting, supporting and connecting people and resources" and are a school's first contact for safety, security and emergency management issues. About half the new hires have previous law enforcement or security experience and most have previously worked in a school setting.

"The goal is that they are, of course, security driven but also student driven," said Jason Matlock, the district's director of emergency management, safety and security. "They'll work hard to engage students and integrate with them — they aren't going to be handcuffing kids."

Students also no longer will see squad cars in front of their buildings.

"That's good for the people who are triggered by those things, but there are certainly people who do think we need police," Matlock said.

Last fall, a group of three North Side principals wrote an open letter to the district, calling the board's decision to end the Minneapolis police contract a "political game" that "burned a fragile bridge by lumping the entire police department into the complete negative."

Nafeesah Muhammad, an English teacher at Patrick Henry High School, said it's important the support specialists have a clear understanding of their student population and add to the work other support staffers are doing.

"That's how you'll change the narrative," she said. "It's not just about having that presence, it's about reimagining what safety looks like, and that means mental, social and academic safety, too. Otherwise, it's just law enforcement."

'Champions for kids'Two years ago, St. Paul thought it was on to something special. The district had SROs stationed at seven high schools who began wearing polo shirts instead of uniforms and acting more like mentors — changes students demanded.

Soon, the officers would be joined by the new school support liaisons. The liaisons, in turn, would take the place of contract security guards and be called on to be champions for kids — "kids having their best day and kids not having their best day," said Laura Olson, the district's security and emergency management director.

Then came Floyd's death. Since then, 15 liaisons, eight of them people of color, have been hired and put through the district's academy-styled training. But should police officers be needed to respond to a crisis, they will have to come from down the street and not the hallway: "There definitely will be a 'time' issue," Olson said.

The St. Paul liaisons, unlike the Minneapolis specialists, carry pepper spray and handcuffs and if required to use them, will document it for civil rights purposes. They also would need a good reason to use them.

Thus far, no such action has been taken, said Shannon Hill, who manages the district's school support liaisons. Last week, she was at Como Park Senior High while Shaun Ross, the school's liaison, made his morning rounds.

"It's amazing how calm and chill everything is," Ross said as he walked down a hallway.

Minutes later, students streamed out of classrooms, and one took him up on a fist bump.

In Hopkins, students were instrumental in persuading the district to end its contract with Minnetonka police. Elliot Berman, a student representative on the school board, said it's hoped the money can be used to hire a full-time chemical dependency counselor, but for now it's been absorbed in the general fund budget.

Muna Musse graduated from Hopkins High last year but remains committed to the cause of police-free schools, and ready to offer guidance where needed: "Safety in schools does not exist when Black and brown youth are forced to interact with a system of policing that views them as a threat," she said.

Other districts have been thinking hard about their SRO contracts. Last week, the school board in Rochester took up the issue in a study session and heard the city's police chief say he was open to changes in what officers wear, but not to them giving up their guns.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440