Suggestions on table for Duluth Public Schools police contract
District administrators are working to hammer out a new contract that governs “school resource officers” at Denfeld, East, Ordean East and Lincoln Park.
DULUTH — Recommended changes to Duluth Public Schools’ contract with the city’s police department would keep officers in four district schools but call for more meetings, training and reviews.
Potential changes presented Tuesday to School Board members include having school police meet with student groups such as the Black Student Association and the Student Executive Board; undergo the same training in implicit bias and other concerns that teachers and staff do; and participate in monthly or quarterly reviews of the citations they issue — 20 suggestions in all, including putting together a process for students or staff to issue a complaint about a school officer.
Those ideas have already been sent to police department staff, according to Anthony Bonds, the district’s assistant superintendent who led Monday’s presentation. Their genesis is an advisory committee school district administrators put in place in fall 2020. District leaders said they expect police department staff to send them a draft of a new contract next week.
Whether any of the changes presented Monday make it into a new agreement is ultimately up to School Board members, who’d be the ones to approve it on the district’s end, and police and city leaders, who’d have to agree to it. District officials could also decide not to renew the contract in the first place, effectively removing the officers stationed at Denfeld and East high schools as well as Ordean East and Lincoln Park middle schools.
Superintendent John Magas said Tuesday that the police department has been thoughtful and cooperative while the district considers reworking the contract between them.
“In a worst-case scenario, if they said, ‘We're not going to accept any recommendations and we're just going to do things the same way,’ then it is the prerogative of the board to say, ‘Well, then we don't want to move forward with the contract,’” Magas told board members. “But I'm confident that there's great work being done, and collaborative work, and that that won't be the situation.”
District administrators also presented to School Board members a further nine proposals that they themselves could work on outside of a new agreement, including pushing for changes to St. Louis County’s diversion programs, where many cited students reportedly end up; furthering school-based alternatives to suspensions; and creating an alternative school for middle schoolers to complement the district’s existing one for high school students.
Members of the advisory committee that helped draft the entire entire set of recommendations also asked for the district to explore alternatives to full-time school police officers and reduce existing officers’ hours so the money that pays for their time could be spent elsewhere. Those, however, are not part of the slate of proposed changes.
The 18-member committee consists of Bonds and a host of school and district administrators, plus representatives from the Duluth Community School Collaborative, the NAACP, the School Board and students at Denfeld and East.
Bonds told the News Tribune that district staff tried to make their recommendations fit the concerns they’d heard from the committee, high school and middle school principals, and responses from a survey conducted by a consulting firm.
“I'm optimistic that many of these things, if done — they will lead to some significant improvements in perceptions of how school resource officers are viewed by students and families who have concerns,” Bonds said.
Police department data indicates that Black and Native American students at Denfeld, East, Ordean and Lincoln Park are cited by school police more often than their white peers.
Black students make up 3.98% of the student bodies at those schools, according to Minnesota Department of Education data. But they received 37.5% of the police citations issued between the beginning of the 2021-22 school year and March 15, 2022 — the date through which district administrators provided that data to the Duluth chapter of the NAACP this spring.
Similarly, 2.82% of students at those schools are Native American, but Native students received 9.38% of police citations during that same time period. By comparison, white students make up 78.91% of the collective student body at Denfeld, East, Ordean and Lincoln Park but only 30.21% of students cited are white.
Similar disparities exist among students expelled or suspended from Duluth Public Schools. That prompted the Minnesota Department of Human Rights to step in and push the school districts here and a few dozen others to put together plans to ease that discrepancy.
Hand in hand
Administrators there refer to the district’s code of conduct when determining school discipline, and officers refer to Minnesota law when determining citations, but there’s overlap when, say, a student brings drugs to school or attacks a classmate because that sort of offense is prohibited by both.
Police citations universally result in school discipline, but not all school discipline results in a citation, according to district administrators. The district’s code of conduct calls for school resource officers to be involved with certain offenses, such as drug possession. School administrators, though, have a lot of discretion when determining when a student should be forwarded to school police, according to Bonds.
Most students who get cited by a school police officer end up in a diversion program, Brian Kazmierczak, the principal at Lincoln Park, claimed at Tuesday’s board meeting. A diversion program is an alternative in the criminal justice system that substitutes run-of-the-mill punishments for education, community service or something similar.
Officer Chad Guenther, the resource officer assigned to Denfeld, said that he and administrators there work “hand in hand in determining outcomes for certain situations.”
“I can’t think of any one student that I may have issued a citation to this year, and I know there’s been plentiful, where I can tell you that there hasn’t been a positive relationship even after the fact,” he said.