Duluth police cite fewer students this year
The overall number is much smaller, but the number of Black and American Indian students cited by school police is still disproportionately high.
DULUTH — The number of Duluth Public Schools students cited in school by city police has fallen dramatically this school year, but the preponderance of Black and American Indian students among that group remains disproportionately high.
Between September 2022 and March of this year, 28 students were cited by Duluth Police Department officers — often called school resource officers or SROs — stationed at the school district’s two high schools and two middle schools, according to data sent to the News Tribune on Monday. That’s about 70% fewer students than the 96 cited over approximately the same time period last school year.
But the number of non-white students who received citations remains much higher than their share of the overall student population would suggest.
About 4% of the students enrolled this school year at Denfeld High School, East High School, Lincoln Park Middle School and Ordean East Middle School are Black, according to Minnesota Department of Education data. But 11 of the 28 students cited by the officers stationed at those schools — not quite 40% — are Black. Similarly, American Indian students at those four schools make up about 6% of the student population but are 35% of the students cited.
The lower overall number is music to the ears of groups like the Duluth NAACP and the Law Enforcement Accountability Network, both of which have questioned the wisdom of posting police in schools .
“It is harm reduction,” Jamey Sharp, a team member at the accountability network, told the News Tribune. “That’s less kids that are missing school to go to court, less kids who are getting bigger sentences later in life because of some kind of a record that was started when they were sitting in their classroom. That’s a huge impact.”
We still know that the students who are struggling the most are BIPOC students, students in poverty.
Still, Sharp and Classie Dudley, the president of the local NAACP chapter, each noted that the racial disparities persisted.
“We still know that the students who are struggling the most are BIPOC students, students in poverty,” Dudley said.
Both chalked the decrease in total citations, in part, up to the broader attention paid to the district’s school resource officer program over the past few years.
“I think all eyes are on them,” Dudley said. “In part, it’s the community’s work that kind of uplifted this issue to change the narrative on it.”
Returning to class
School district and police leaders said the drop in citations is partly the result of students getting reacclimated to school after spending months and months learning remotely during the apex of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our kids are resocialized at school,” Tom Tusken, Denfeld’s principal, told the News Tribune. About 50-60% of students cited this school year and last were enrolled at Denfeld.
Tusken noted that the bulk of Hunters who received a police citation last school year did so in September and October, which he said illustrated how difficult the return to in-person learning was for students there.
“As the year goes on, you see those citation numbers drop, and that is due in large part to kids re-establishing relationships and us working to mitigate the conflict that gets brought back into the building,” Tuksen said. “We had a rough start last year to bring kids back in, and it kind of mitigated from there.”
But the much-higher citation figures recorded last school year are approximately in line with those recorded in prior ones, including multiple pre-pandemic years. District data indicates that 78, 88, and 90 students were cited during the 2017-2018, 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 school years, respectively.
Our emphasis now is trying to be preventative and restorative, and that is certainly a much bigger piece of what we’re doing now than ever before.
Tusken said the district is more focused on alternatives to suspension, among other practices, than it was before the pandemic.
“I’ve never seen a school year like the year we got back last year. I’ve never seen anything like it, so I’m surprised that the numbers are as high as they are,” he said. “But certainly the mindset of the district has changed. … Our emphasis now is trying to be preventative and restorative, and that is certainly a much bigger piece of what we’re doing now than ever before.”
The school’s alternative suspension program, Tusken said, is now much more focused on the impact of a conflict, skills students can learn or hone to navigate future conflicts, and to understand the impact of their behaviors.
“And that is much more robustly applied than it ever has been before,” Tusken. “So that’s got to be a large part of why you’re seeing the decrease. We simply handle discipline different to begin with.”
Brian Kazmierczak, the principal at Lincoln Park Middle School, said staff there are doing more “pre-teaching” instead of reacting to a student conflict, which allows them to get ahead of an incident that could ultimately result in a citation and intervene before it reaches that point.
District and police staff also indicated that they’re putting a greater emphasis on the student handbook, which outlines the rules and policies under which students are expected to behave.
“We’re looking for ways to better utilize the student handbook, and not looking to rely as much on citations to drive some of those behavioral changes,” Police Chief Mike Ceynowa said.
The district’s contract with the police department sets out the parameters for the school resource officer program here.
District and police department leaders reworked it after hearing from an advisory committee comprised of school administrators, nonprofit staff, school board members, and high school students at Denfeld and East. The new contract was approved in September 2022, and it either explicitly or implicitly adopted each of the 20 recommendations set forth by that committee, including regular meetings with student groups, district input on the officers who are assigned or hired to a school post, and yearly evaluations of the program.
That rethink was an opportunity to discuss citation data, as well as when school police are used, when they cite students, and what type of citation students might receive, according to Anthony Bonds, the school district’s assistant superintendent.
“We’ve invested a lot of money in restorative practices and other programs to create positive learning environments in our schools,” Bonds said. “All of those things have led to fewer incidents happening, and when fewer incidents happen, many of those incidents … do not rise to the level where students are receiving citations.”
District leaders want the student handbook to be the primary source of consequences and discipline for students, Bonds said. The regular assessments stipulated in the new contract are leading to “great dialogue” about when it's appropriate to cite a student or not, he said.
“I think there’s more dialogue or consideration that is given, or that is had, before a citation is actually given,” Bonds said. “I think those things are leading to a reduction overall, as well.”
Chief Ceynowa also chalked up part of the citation decrease to new school district leaders, including Bonds and Superintendent John Magas, both of whom were hired in the early stages of the pandemic.
“They’ve been open to hearing our concerns and the community’s concerns about police in school,” Ceynowa said. “I think by having those conversations and working closely together, we found … in a lot of situations, alternatives.”