BY ADILIA WATSON
In June 2020, following the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, schools in Rochester, New York followed other campuses nationwide seeking to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and limit damaging interactions between kids of color and police. Similar to districts in states from Wisconsin to California, the Rochester City School District removed a dozen campus police, known as school resource officers or SROs. The move came after the city defunded the program in its 2020-21 budget.
Now, with previously cooped-up kids back in classrooms, the number of campus fights and disruptions has grown, putting pressure on local school board officials to reestablish police presence. In recent weeks, police and private security officers have been posted outside high schools at the beginning and end of the school day — protection that could be extended pending a decision by school commissioners Tuesday.
Noting “rapidly deteriorating conditions for order and physical safety,” the unions representing all school-level workers have called on district officials to reconsider stationing SROs back on high school campuses “ASAP.” Among other changes — including smaller class sizes and greater staff support — employees say students who are “not ready to learn in school” should have remote learning options.
“As it stands now, building administrators do not have the ability, staff, or resources to create safe school environments while providing meaningful alternatives for students who chose to disrupt the educational process,” the union representatives wrote in an Oct. 15 letter.
But community activists and social justice groups oppose a return of campus police and the effort to push students with challenging behaviors off campus.
“We’re the ones who have to make sure that their needs are being met and that we are getting to the root cause of the issues,” Stevie Vargas, a campaign coordinator for New York’s Alliance for Quality Education told The Imprint. “Why are there behavioral issues? Why are they acting out? The alternative is pushing our kids out of school into the streets and into the prison system.”
Ethan Winn, the father of a Rochester student, said at a public meeting that he is not convinced parents’ concerns about bringing police back on campus are being heard by the school district.
“I really hope the board uses the opportunity to demonstrate that you are hearing our voices, and you are open to reworking proposals that we do not think are feasible, and find solutions that really work for our scholars.”
All sides agree there are troublesome conditions on Rochester school campuses, serving more than 26,000 K-12 students. In a district that is roughly 53% Black and 33% Latino, officials report more than 900 suspensions this school year already. Almost half involve fighting or “physical aggression,” according to a “safety and security update” presented at a Nov. 2 board meeting. School district figures show 902 suspensions in October. That number is higher than three years ago, but 250 fewer than October 2019. The majority of suspensions this year have involved children in seventh through ninth grades.
“Our children are asking and crying out for help,” commissioner Beatriz LeBron said at a recent meeting.
Heightening the concerns, on Nov. 2, local police reported the shooting death of a 15-year-old Rochester high schooler, Jamere Wade — one of dozens of teenagers injured or killed by gun violence in the city this year.
One of Jamere’s former teachers at Franklin told a local TV station she’s lost six of her former students this year. She described “a flood of kids” coming to her after news of his death, crying and hugging each other.
“Behind every single one of the murders in the city this year, you don’t just have family and friends that are mourning, you have teachers, you have educators, staff, coaches, people that have been working with our kids,” Laura Dow said in the interview. “They are more than just a name. They are more than just a number. They are loved. Their lives matter.”
Rochester City School District Superintendent of Schools Lesli Myers-Small appeared Saturday on the Franklin High School campus at a community forum called to address campus concerns. She has spoken to the concerns about student violence, publicly outlining a series of disciplinary measures, including the temporary reinstatement of campus security.
But after a year and a half of pandemic-imposed shutdowns, she has opposed the unions’ position that some children need to be shifted back to remote learning.
“Based on what we know from the impact of COVID, in-person learning provides the best learning experience for our students,” she wrote in a publicly released letter.
The superintendent cited current district codes of conduct calling for students who engage in violence to be placed on “short or long-term suspension.” At Franklin High School, where problems have been particularly acute, there is now increased staff support from a private security company and Mobile Safety Unit, as well as programming by a local restorative justice group.
Myers-Small said remote learning as a disciplinary measure will only be an option “after exhausting all other solutions.”
School districts in rural parts of California are struggling with similar pandemic-fueled spates of violence and troubled returns to campus since the lifting of stay-at-home orders. As a result, communities in the Monterey Bay region also are seeking a return of campus police.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has described the extent of the pandemic’s disruption on students in a June report outlining the challenges — everything from illness and death of a loved one to “abrupt school shutdowns” and feelings of “fear, grief, and anxiety as the virus spread.”
In a letter to the school community on Nov. 3, Superintendent Myers-Small expressed the burden of the times: “Superintendents of other urban school districts have shared concerns about student conduct, social-emotional and mental health, an increase in acts of violence occurring outside of schools, and staffing shortages. We are not alone.”
At a recent public meeting held over video conference, Isaiah Santiago, 17, called for better mental health care in schools.
Some may see students who act up “as bad kids doing the wrong thing,” he said. “But what we do not realize is, this is the result of hurt young people who simply do not know how to deal with their hurt but to temporarily satisfy it by hurting others and getting into negative things.”
In Rochester, parents, community groups, city officials, youth and legal advocates have spoken about how the devastating impacts of COVID-19 have played out for students since they returned to campuses. Some have also expressed concern that school authorities’ responses may overlook the root causes of students’ disruptive behavior.
Groups including the New York Civil Liberties Union, The Children’s Agenda, Teen Empowerment, Citizen Action of New York and the Working Families Party wrote that students’ misbehavior is a symptom of schools that are poorly equipped to receive students deeply harmed by the past 18 months of pandemic life. They called the proposal to exclude disruptive students from in-person learning “appalling.”
“This is tantamount to calling for a mass out-of-school suspension; it is inappropriate and likely unlawful,” the groups wrote, noting the exclusion would amount to “a blanket denial of students’ due process and education rights.”
The groups called the suggestion by the employee unions to bring back SROs, “devastating.” Such an effort, they said, would “undo years of work by activists, students, parents, educators, and other community members.” The district “proved itself to be among the most progressive school districts in the nation when it listened to students and realized that police do not belong in schools.”
Noting the overrepresentation of Black and Latino students in campus arrests and disciplinary measures, the community groups called on the district to “invest heavily in alternatives to police — alternatives that keep students in school, are culturally-responsive and sensitive, and do not resort to state violence to maintain order.”
Meanwhile, on Tuesday night, school commissioners will vote on a $78,210 budget item to fund a month-long contract with the Rochester Police Department to provide officers at secondary school campuses for an hour at the beginning and end of each weekday.
But if recent past is any indication, the move will face pushback from those who prefer other methods of interrupting violence, including restorative justice circles, social workers and mental health providers equipped to de-escalate incidents that could lead to arrest and incarceration.
“The police presence was not making schools safer,” said Eamonn Scanlon, education policy director with The Children’s Agenda, a Rochester-based organization focusing on policies that promote children’s health and educational success. “There’s really no research to conclude that having a police presence really changes the levels of violence or incidents.”
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