As communities nationwide grapple with issues of police brutality and the use of force, Rochester Public Schools has begun to face some questions about whether law enforcement officers should be working directly in the school buildings.
As an organization, Rochester Public Schools has defended its use of police officers known as "school resource officers." There are a number of current and former students, though, who would like to see the school district invest in other resources, such as social workers and mental health workers as a more proactive option.
Rochester is not the only school district in Minnesota being confronted with the issue. The death of George Floyd at police hands prompted the Minneapolis Public Schools to sever its relationship with the city’s police department. The St. Paul Police Department is considering doing the same.
“They bring the justice system into the school system,” said Yasmin Ali, a Mayo High School junior who has been involved in racial equity work throughout the district. “We’re enlarging the school-to-prison pipeline with SROs in the schools.”
Rochester Public Schools released a statement, saying, in part, that the district invests in SROs to help students feel safe and help them thrive. The statement also clarified that that SROs do not take part in student misconduct other than instances that “involve suspected criminal conduct.”
“The thing that’s most important for our students is building positive relationships with trusted adults,” RPS Superintendent Michael Muñoz said in the statement. “We are so fortunate that the school resource officers in our schools are part of our community, building trust and connections with youth.”
At the time the statement was released, on June 3, RPS Director of Communications Heather Nessler said the statement was a response to comments that had surfaced on Twitter. At that time, she said there hadn't been any emails or phone calls regarding the use of SROs.
By June 16, School Board member Mark Schleusner told the district’s administration he thought the district should look at its use of SROs and examine whether they are worth the cost in light of some criticism of the program. The board members had been speaking about the School District’s budget, so the conversation about SROs, at the time, was limited to Schleusner’s remark.
When asked about the complaints Schleusner was referring to, Nessler said the district had received two emails and three public comments on the topic. The district would not release the emails without a public data request. The Post Bulletin will soon file such a request.
“I think it would be good if we could try to quantify our return on investments on the resource officers,” Schleusner said. “I think it would be good to see if the money we’re spending there is truly justifiable considering the requests that we’ve had to perhaps remove them.”
The Post Bulletin requested data from the school district pertaining to the activity of school resource officers. In response, Nessler said that information was still being gathered for the annual report on the subject that will be presented in July.
The SRO program was also mentioned in a public petition that three 2017 Century High School graduates began recently. The petition calls for the school district to diversify its teaching staff and curriculum. In the list of demands, the petition specifically mentions the SRO program twice:
Provide clear information to students and the community about the role and budget of the SRO program.
Work and communicate with students and the community on finding alternatives to the SRO program.
Serena Shah and Ohemaa Kyei-Baffour are two of the students who started the petition. Shah said that instead of having an SRO to intervene with criminal activity, the district could use other resources to prevent those situations from happening in the first place.
“I think people see the SROs as something that’s already a part of Rochester Public Schools, but I think we want to open up the conversation where we can sort of reimagine things and feel a little bit more open to other ideas,” Shah said.
The authors of the petition aren’t the only current or former students in the district who are skeptical about the need for school resource officers. In fact, a number of students of color from throughout the district claim that the presence of police officers in the schools does more harm than good, especially since the death of Floyd in Minneapolis.
"It just brings trauma for all of us; every video that we watch, it just piles more and more trauma ... we are afraid of the police," said Yezi Gugsa, a Mayo High School senior. "When we see those officers, we can't help being scared."
In April, the School District approved an updated contract with the Rochester Police Department to add a sixth school resource officer. As a base, the School District pays the city $27,636 a month for SRO services. Starting Sept. 1, that monthly amount will increase to $33,378 a month, according to the contract.
Some students, like Ali, believe the funding spent on school resource officers would be better used elsewhere. She said it’s often administrative personnel who step in to break up fights, and that social workers are trained in de-escalation. The funding that goes to SROs could be used for more proactive measures, she said.
John Marshall senior Zuri Cofer had a different take than Ali. She said as much as social workers are trained in de-escalation, it shouldn’t have to be their responsibility to break up a fight. The question is whether school officers are properly trained in issues such as equity, since the system does need to be reformed, she said.
A representative for the Rochester Education Association, the teachers' union, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Local law enforcement officials recently defended the use of school resource officers at a town hall meeting that was hosted by a number of organizations, including the NAACP of Rochester.
Jeff Stilwell is the captain of the Community Services Division in the Rochester Police Department. He helps work with the SROs. He said there are benefits to having officers work directly in the schools rather than just responding to schools when they’re needed. The officers, he said, emphasize engagement over enforcement.
According to Stilwell, Rochester has a model SRO program and that officers statewide come to Rochester to receive training.
“Do we have a lot of work to do? Absolutely. I'm not going to deny that. Have we lost the trust in certain corners of this community? For sure," Stilwell said. "But every day I walk into this office trying to figure out ways to rebuild that trust."