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School district tries making its police ‘more guardian than warrior’

Since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, there's been an increased police presence at schools. But that presence has also sparked concerns. According to a recent analysis, black students are more likely to be arrested on campus than their white counterparts. Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week reports on how the Saint Paul public schools are changing their approach.

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  • JOHN YANG:

    Since the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999, there's been a big rise in police stationed at schools. There are 44,000 around the country.

    It's led to concerns over their role and whether teenage behavior is sometimes being inappropriately criminalized. A new analysis of federal civil rights data by Education Week finds that black students are more likely to attend schools with police officers present, and they are three times more likely to be arrested on campus than white students.

    Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza with our partner Education Week has a report on how the St. Paul public schools in Minnesota are revamping their approach.

    This is from our weekly series Making the Grade.

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    Minnesota — it's known for the Vikings, Lake Wobegon, and being nice.

    But, in the past year, a series of violent interactions within the St. Paul school system has taken center stage, school fights, teacher assaults, and one incident where a visiting student was arrested for trespassing, all caught on cell phones and, of course, widely shared on social media.

    Teachers threatened to strike, the superintendent was fired, and more than 100 students walked out in protest.

    Makkah Abdur Salaam is a senior.

  • MAKKAH ABDUR SALAAM, Student:

    The truth is, I don't feel safe around police. Like, it's point blank, period.

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    Students like Saffiyah Al'Aziz Muhammed say rocky police-civilian relations have filtered down to schools all over the country.

  • SAFFIYAH AL’AZIZ MOHAMMED, Student:

    Us seeing all this police brutality in the media, and then going to school, and then your interactions with school police aren't good, it's kind of, like, traumatizing a little bit.

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    Nationwide, there were nearly 70,000 arrests during the 2013 school year. And, in most states, black students are far more likely to be arrested, according to an analysis of federal data by the Education Week Research Center.

    One reason might be that they are far more likely to be in schools with police officers.

    Laura Olson is trying to change the relationship between students and police officers in St. Paul schools.

  • LAURA OLSON, Saint Paul Public Schools:

    If students don't feel safe when they come to school, they're not going to be in a position to learn.

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    One of the first things she did? Change the uniforms.

    Some students expressed that they felt uncomfortable, kind of that paramilitary look. So, over the summer, instead of the hard military-style blue and metal badge, they moved to a more soft blue polo shirt with stitched-on badge.

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    Officers, known as school resource officers, are still armed and carry Tasers, but Olson hopes this softer look makes them more approachable.

    Another change? Clarify when SRO's should step in and when should they step aside.

  • LAURA OLSON:

    We realized that we had a bit of a disconnect between what is perceived as behavior and what is criminal activity. What is the line between what schools handle and what the SRO handles? And sometimes the lines were a little blurry.

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    Commander Kevin Casper has also increased training for SROs in areas like mental health and de-escalation. He's creating a different mind-set.

  • KEVIN CASPER, Commander, St. Paul Police Department:

    We want to be more guardians than warriors. If a family, if a mom or dad caught their kid with marijuana, their first instinct wouldn't be to turn them over to the police and get them into the criminal justice system.

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    Casper tells of a student who was suicidal.

  • KEVIN CASPER:

    So, the SRO kind of like became his life coach, coached him, trained him, and he actually made the football team, and he's doing great.

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    That is a very emotional story for you. Tell me why.

  • KEVIN CASPER:

    It is personal. To think that cops don't want the best for the community and kids is way, way out of what I see day to day. So …

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    It's personal for Officer Tong Yang as well.

  • TONG YANG, Officer:

    I'm also an adviser of the kids, social worker, counselor, a father figure, a coach in sports, life coach, a little bit of everything.

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    Now Yang only gets involved when there's an actual crime committed. Instead, he works on building relationships.

  • TONG YANG:

    We have been pushing to be more proactive, right, to be more visible, be more approachable, building that bond between us and the kids, having that trust factor.

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    Most St. Paul teachers want SROs in schools. They recently threatened to strike over school violence.

  • CHERYL BUZICKY, Teacher:

    As teachers, we really just want to feel like we're supported fully by everyone.

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    The new teacher contract now includes money for additional supports, including counselors and social workers.

    So, have efforts to overhaul school policing in St. Paul worked? It's barely been a year, but the police point to far fewer student arrests, and administrators say the school climate has improved. But ask some students, they aren't so sure.

  • SAFFIYAH AL’AZIZ MOHAMMED:

    It's a tough question.

  • MAKKAH ABDUR SALAAM:

    I will say it was better than last year, but …

  • SAFFIYAH AL’AZIZ MOHAMMED:

    The year is not over, though.

  • MAKKAH ABDUR SALAAM:

    Yes. Yes, that's true.

  • KAVITHA CARDOZA:

    For the PBS NewsHour and Education Week, I'm Kavitha Cardoza reporting from St. Paul, Minnesota.

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