The Duluth School Board is expected to vote this month on a new contract for the Duluth Police Department to provide school resource officers to the district, but a group of former and current students are asking the board to remove officers from the schools.
Duluth Public Schools has four SROs — one in each high school and one in each middle school.
Hannah Feyen, Mya Halvorson and Abbie Amundsen, all 2019 graduates of Duluth schools, are three who worked on the petition. Feyen and Halvorson graduated from Denfeld High School and Amundsen graduated from East High School.
Halvorson and Amundsen said once they saw how effective a similar petition in Minneapolis was, they wanted to use that momentum to create change in their own community.
None of the three women, who are white, have had personal interactions with SROs, but they said it’s about making sure that all students feel comfortable in their learning environment.
“Police as a whole and as an institution have been traumatizing the Black community outside of schools, so having them inside our schools, students of color are going to feel more uncomfortable,” Feyen said. “At what point are we going to start listening to their concerns?”
Halvorson said some parents may respond to this petition by saying their child loves their SRO, but she thinks it’s really important for them to understand why that’s not the case for all students.
“It’s not because those children are disrespectful to authority. It’s not because they’re stupid or don’t understand what’s going on,” she said. “It’s because they’ve been experiencing structural violence for their entire lives, and that’s what’s important for Duluth Public Schools to look at and actually consider.”
According to Sgt. Mike LaFontaine, with the police department's juvenile services unit, SROs are there to build relationships with students through community-based policing.
“I think it’s just important for building community relationships,” LaFontaine said. “We spent many years trying to establish that relationship with the citizens in the city, and unfortunately recent events can undo years of work, so this is just a way to keep that relationship going and helping people understand that the cops can help you out.”
LaFontaine said teachers sometimes call on them for assistance. If there is a physical danger in the school, the SROs will respond and use deescalation techniques to defuse the situation.
SROs don't enforce school rules — those should be handled by school staff, LaFontaine said.
“But if a student is mouthing off or yelling at a teacher, we don’t deal with those types of situations,” LaFontaine said. “If we do get involved in (school rule issues), it's to help educate somebody on where those potential behaviors can lead to and what those consequences can be sometimes.”
Outside of building relationships with students, SROs will spend time tracking down threats, made on social media or otherwise, to the schools. LaFontaine said when there is a school shooting in the news, officers will see an uptick in local threats.
“So they'll spend a lot of time trying to run that information down and find out what the reality is,” he said.
LaFontaine said SROs regularly go through training and even attend the National Association of School Resource Officers training. Mo Canady, executive director of the association, said what people might see in viral videos isn't representative of what SROs are supposed to do.
Canady said, by federal definition, an SRO is a sworn law enforcement officer who is expected to use a community-based policing approach and work collaboratively with the school district.
“When it comes to law enforcement, school resource officers have to be carefully selected and specifically trained how to do this job,” he said. “It’s the most unique assignment in law enforcement and it’s not for everybody.”
Canady said the National Association of School Resource Officers trains about 10,000 officers a year. When there is a school shooting, such as the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead, the organization will see an increase in officers asking for training. Canady said his organization doesn't conduct training in Florida and very few in New Jersey, California or New York.
“Unfortunately, we are not responsible for training all the school resource officers in this country,” Canady said. “I wish that we were, but that’s just not the case,” adding his organization hasn't trained any Minneapolis police officers and only a few St. Paul police officers in the past.
Canady did say Duluth police officers have gone through their training.
From 2015-20, Duluth SROs made 10 juvenile arrests on school property between all four secondary schools. In that same time span, between the two high schools and two middle schools, 634 citations have been issued with the three most common citations being for disorderly conduct, assault and drugs.
The student petition, which has over 1,000 signatures, cites the “school-to-prison pipeline” as one of the reasons SROs should be removed. After hearing there have only been 10 arrests over the last five years in Duluth schools, all three women agreed arrests aren’t the only way the pipeline is created, saying disciplinary actions, as well as negative interactions with police in schools, can create it as well.
“If students of color, especially, are saying that they feel less safe in their school because there’s a police officer there, it’s important to value their ability to have a place that they feel safe,” Amundsen said.
According to a 2019 student survey conducted by the Minnesota Department of Education and Department of Health, which asked eighth, ninth and 11th graders how they view school resource officers, 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.
Of those same students, 43.3% said they would not feel comfortable 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.
The district has a history of disproportional discipline for students of color and special education students. In 2018, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights sent a letter to Duluth warning the district it faced investigations into possible discrimination if it did not work to reduce the racial disparities in student discipline. Duluth was among 43 traditional public schools and charter schools to receive such a warning.
In the school years 2016-17 and 2017-18, special education student suspensions increased and are disproportionate compared to the rest of the population. In those same years, though Black students made up only 6% of the population district-wide, they received 28% of suspensions, and those who were of two or more races accounted for 9% of the population but received 21% of suspensions. The data is based on days of suspensions.
In 2018, the district came to an agreement with the Department of Human Rights to work on correcting these disparities.
The School Board is scheduled to have a discussion about SROs during its committee-of-the-whole meeting Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. Duluth police officers are expected to attend to answer questions and make a presentation.
The School Board is expected to vote on a new contract for SROs at its regular meeting July 21 at 6:30 p.m.
Meetings are still being held virtually and can be viewed live on the district’s YouTube channel or Charter channel 187. Public comment for the July 21 meeting will be accepted through July 20 at 4 p.m. Public comments can be submitted by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 218-336-8730 and recording a message.