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Duluth community members speak out about school resource officers

Marnita Schroedl, CEO and founder of Marnita's Table, said they are looking for feedback on how students, parents, teachers and the school resource officers themselves feel about student safety.

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Denfeld High School sophomore Joshua McKinney, left, listens during a community event in the media center at Denfeld on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, featuring table discussions with students, faculty and residents to generate input regarding school resource officers. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
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The conversation of school resource officers in Duluth Public Schools began in July 2020, just over a month after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It began when two Duluth School Board student representatives spoke at a meeting in favor of removing SROs.

To continue the conversation with students, staff and community members, the district hired Marnita's Table, a nonprofit organization based in the Twin Cities.

“We've been working hard to engage the community around conversation related to our school resource officers," Superintendent John Magas said. "We believe it's very important to engage as many members of the community as possible, make sure that we're bringing a variety of voices to the table, including diverse voices weren't always part of the conversation to dig into that question as to whether or not we should continue with school resource officers, and if so, how should we enhance that programming so it is firmly based in community policing.

More than 65 people from various backgrounds, races and ages attended a community conversation event at Denfeld High School on Wednesday night facilitated by Marnita's Table. The event started with dinner and a scavenger hunt of SRO statistics, then continued with conversations among groups.

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Marnita Schroedl, CEO and founder of Marnita's Table in Minneapolis, points after asking a question to the audience in the media center at Denfeld High School on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, during a community event seeking input regarding school resource officers. Marnita's Table uses a model called "Intentional Social Interaction" to create discussion. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Marnita Schroedl, CEO and founder of Marnita's Table, said they are looking for feedback on how students, parents, teachers and the SROs feel about student safety. All of the feedback will be compiled into a report and given to the School Board in October.

The tables were a mix of students, teachers, parents, SROs and residents. Each table was asked to answer predetermined questions.

Some of the tables started their conversation with keeping SROs in the buildings and what the district and SROs can do to improve relationships with students. Other tables started their discussion with removing SROs from schools altogether and what can be done instead.

Before the community conversation event Wednesday, the NAACP sent a news release stating it continues to stand by its decision to remove SROs from schools.

Magas said he received the information from the NAACP and welcomed its perspective.

“We intended to engage the community in deep dialogue related to the subject of school resource officers, so this event is part of us fulfilling that promise,” Magas said. “As we work to bring everybody to the table, we certainly hope that the NAACP takes part in that conversation as well because we want to make sure all perspectives are heard.”

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Members of the Duluth chapter of the NAACP attended the meeting to ask the district to remove SROs from the schools.

At the end of the discussion, each table was asked to narrow down two to three discussion topics they had to share with the room.

“We agreed that school resource officers are from an inherently racist system and the criminalization of adolescent behavior should be eradicated within the schools,” Duluth NAACP President Classie Dudley said during the event. “We said that we wanted a student-first model, and the students shouldn’t have to fight for or against school resource officers.”

Other topics shared included: finding a way for students to have a safe place to discuss issues without fear of charges being involved; making sure student voices are involved in all discussions; how to include LGBTQ students' experiences when it comes to interactions with SROs; requiring SROs to get involved with youth community programs; and engaging students, staff, administration and families in school safety instead of placing it all on SROs.

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Duluth Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Anthony Bonds, center, listens during a community event in the media center at Denfeld on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

There is one Duluth police officer stationed at each of four buildings: Denfeld High School, East High School, Lincoln Park Middle School and Ordean East Middle School.

According to a 2019 student survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Education and Department of Health that asked eighth, ninth and 11th graders how they view SROs, 37.7% of students of color in Duluth Public Schools surveyed said they would not tell their SRO or police officer if they knew about something unsafe or illegal.

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Of those same students, 43.3% said they would feel uncomfortable going to their SRO or police officer if they were having problems or needed help.

But when asked if they thought having a SRO or police officer at school was a good idea, 92% of students of color said they did. The 2019 survey was answered by 130 students of color in three grades and just over 1,200 students overall.

Student surveys are conducted every three years by the Department of Education.

Denfeld High School sophomore Deshawn Moore, 16, said he came to the event to let people know that without SROs in the schools, he wouldn’t feel safe.

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More than 60 students, faculty and residents participated in table discussions in the media center at Denfeld High School on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. Denfeld hosted a community event to generate input regarding school resource officers. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

When it was time for his table to talk at the end of the event about what they learned, one of the adults stood up and said: “We just sat there and listened to a student. I suggest everyone just sits and listens to students.”

At the end of the school day Wednesday, a fight broke out among students and caused Denfeld to be put in lockdown. Moore said he actually witnessed the fight and tried to help the teacher break it up.

“Don’t come to school to just fight. Come to school to learn and graduate and get good grades,” Moore said. “The way these kids are acting are making people think this is a bad school and it isn’t. We have so many opportunities here.

“These teachers don’t deserve to be getting hit or getting disrespected by these students," he said.

Marnita’s Table held listening sessions with high school students in May and listening sessions with middle school students last week. There is one more community event scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at East High School.

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Ray "Skip" Sandman, a spiritual adviser with the Mash-Ka-Wisen Treatment Center in Sawyer, listens during the opening remarks at a community event at Denfeld High School on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. Prior to the discussions, Sandman delivered a Native American blessing. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

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Marnita Schroedl, CEO and founder of Marnita's Table in Minneapolis, center, speaks to participants during an exercise designed to generate discussion Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, at Denfeld High School. Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Related Topics: EDUCATIONDULUTH PUBLIC SCHOOLSDULUTH DENFELD HIGH SCHOOLDULUTH
Adelle Whitefoot is a former reporter for the Duluth News Tribune.
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