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Duluth school district considers changes to police contract

Data shows non-white students are cited by school resource officers more often than white students.

Police car at East High School
A Duluth Police Department squad car sits in front of East High School.
Steve Kuchera / File / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Leaders at Duluth Public Schools are set to weigh changes to their contract with the city’s police department after reviewing data that indicates officers stationed in schools have cited non-white students at a disproportionately high rate.

A school board panel on Tuesday night informally directed district administrators to review a contract with the city that puts one police officer apiece — called a school resource officer or SRO — at Denfeld and East high schools and Lincoln Park and Ordean East middle schools. Board members also told staff to discuss potential changes to that contract, solicit feedback on those changes, and then present potential modifications later this year.

“We are at a crossroads where it’s clear that there is disparity in the data,” Anthony Bonds, the school district’s assistant superintendent of teaching, learning, and equity, said Tuesday. “We have some serious concerns articulated by certain segments of our community, and we also have another segment of our community saying their experiences have been pleasant and they support (it). So, we’re in a predicament where we have to make a decision on what we believe is best for all.”

Bonds is set to brief the district’s teaching, learning, and equity department on Monday, and then meet with school principals April 25 to discuss how and when school resource officers should be involved in schools, when a citation is warranted, and other considerations. And the district’s SRO Advisory Committee, another group of district administrators that also includes school board members and student representatives, is expected to meet in late April as well.

Non-white students cited more often

Duluth Police Department data indicates that Black students have received 37.5% of the 96 citations issued by school resource officers between the beginning of the 2021-22 school year and March 15, 2022. But Black students only make up 3.98% of the collective student body at the four schools where resource officers are stationed, according to Minnesota Department of Education data.

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There’s a similar, but less dramatic, disparity for Native American students, who received 9.38% of citations but comprise only 2.82% of the four schools’ enrollment. And the opposite is true for white students, who received 30.21% of citations but make up 78.91% of the student body. The vast majority of cited students attend Denfeld and Lincoln Park, as well.

It’s worth noting that the citation data and the state’s demographic data don’t line up precisely: Hispanic and Pacific Islander students are both included in the state’s student counts — making up 3.49% and 0.10% of the student body at the four schools with SROs, respectively — but they have no entries in the by-race citation data.

Racial gaps exist in statistics such as arrests and use of force, a consultant found, but the report does not draw conclusions on the causes.

The same is true for the 9.33% of students who identify as two or more races in the state data. About 21% of the citations issued by Duluth’s school resource officers went to students of an “unknown” race, which is not a demographic the state tracks.

Still, the conclusion is undeniable for members of the NAACP’s Duluth branch, who told the News Tribune that the school district should get rid of its SRO program.

“We think that there should be alternatives to SROs in schools,” Ebony Hilman, co-chair of the branch’s education committee, said Friday. “SROs cause more citations and add to the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Members of LEAN (Law Enforcement Accountability Network) Duluth, which bills itself as a grassroots data analysis group for police accountability, publicized the citation data the morning before board members met.

“These disparities mirror a larger national conversation about the school-to-prison pipeline,” LEAN members wrote. “Limited resources, an outsourcing of discipline to school resource officers, explicit and implicit biases amongst educators, and ‘zero tolerance’ policies result in students not getting the help they need, and instead ending up in the hands of the criminal justice system.”

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Survey indicates broad approval

Surveys and in-person meetings conducted by district consultants indicate that the majority of people — mostly students’ family members and staff — who’ve had an “experience or interaction” with a school resource officer felt it was broadly positive and virtually all felt they were important to have in schools. Of the 225 respondents, 8.9% were students.

“I've had nothing but positive interactions,” a staff member at Ordean East Middle School wrote. “The SRO is in the hall, talking to kids and helping them find their classrooms, open lockers. The SRO at my school seems very interested in building positive relationships with staff and students.”

A Denfeld staff member said the officer there “humanized” police officers and had been essential when students have overdosed.

“Their professionalism and quick actions saved lives,” the staffer wrote. “They are the first people everyone looks toward when we have had threats or alarms going off. They are extremely well trained in de-escalation and keeping everyone calm.”

But Katie Williams, the other co-chair of the NAACP branch’s education committee, said some students at the consultants’ meetings didn’t feel comfortable speaking up or were spoken over. She said she’d take the consultant’s report with a grain of salt.

Potential changes

Duluth school and city officials inked their current SRO contract on Sept. 7, 2021. It calls for the district to pay $277,000 for the four officers’ time and expires in June.

Bonds told the News Tribune that deliberations about the city-district contract wouldn’t preclude the option of simply not renewing it, a move that would presumably mean the end of the school resource officer program at Duluth Public Schools.

The types of changes that could float to the surface in district meetings, Bonds said, might require school police to undergo specific training, rather than a broader clause in the current contract that calls for “training and education within the scope of the police department of the city.” He also mentioned on Tuesday joint performance reviews conducted by school principals and police department administrators before pulling back, wary of getting ahead of the district meetings set to begin next week.

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School Board members themselves only had a handful of suggestions on Tuesday: Amber Sadowski suggested officers not issue tickets with fees, and Chair Jill Lofald said she’d heard others suggest school resource officers wear more casual uniforms in school or not park a Duluth Police Department squad car parked outside school entrances.

Hilman suggested adding more hall monitors, perhaps parent volunteers who walk the halls between classes, school on Saturdays that students could attend to make up work, and further training staff in trauma therapy and dealing with children who have post-traumatic stress. And Williams envisioned a more broad-minded "restorative justice center" where students could learn and practice conflict resolution skills and other techniques.

The News Tribune asked Mayor Emily Larson and Police Chief Mike Tusken whether they felt any changes to the contract between the city and district were warranted, what value they see in having police stationed in the district’s middle and high schools, and why they think a disproportionate amount of non-white students have been cited by their police officers.

Larson, via a spokesperson, said having the city weigh in “abdicates the responsibility of the decision away from leadership and election decision makers who are responsible for the culture and safety of the schools,” but added that she sees the outsized citation rates noted by LEAN and district staff as “not in keeping with what I understand to be the district’s goals.”

And Tusken, also via a spokesperson, wrote that department staff “anticipate renegotiating the contract over the summer months” and that “the SRO program places a priority on engaging students in coaching, guiding, mentoring and educating them behavioral expectations.”

Tusken added that “DPD has not had time to do a qualitative analysis to understand the independent facts of each of these incidents leading to the decision to issue citations. In our analysis, we must understand student behavior leading to the issuance of citations that may include reoccurring or serious incidents impacting student safety."

You can reach Joe Bowen at 218-720-4172 or jbowen@duluthnews.com .

READ MORE EDUCATION COVERAGE
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Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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