Photo by Reese Bland, courtesy of Black Swan Academy

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Why is the Metropolitan Police Department in charge of security in D.C.’s traditional public schools? As calls to transform policing intensify in the wake of protests against systemic anti-Black racism and police violence, the D.C. Council is considering that question. Its Committee on Education passed a budget proposal Thursday that would make DC Public Schools responsible for security guards instead of the Metropolitan Police Department, in response to activists’ calls for police-free schools.

“The safety of our students is a priority but our current staffing of schools indicates that we are more interested in policing our students than we are in ensuring their academic success or supporting their mental and behavioral health,” said At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, the education committee chairman, in a statement.

The five-member committee’s vote to have DCPS take over MPD’s $23 million dollar contract—the police department’s largest contract—was unanimous. According to a draft of the proposal, the intent is to have DCPS begin reimagining security that relies more on behavioral health, as opposed to law enforcement. The draft notes that DCPS has one counselor for every 408 students, one psychologist for every 402 students, and one social worker for every 217 students, while there is one security officer or special police officer for every 129 students.

If the full Council passes the proposal, D.C. would join Minneapolis, Denver, and Portland, Oregon, in severing ties between police and schools. But Council Chairman Phil Mendelsoncould make his own changes ahead of budget votes next month.       

“I think it’s worth considering but there ought to be an examination first of whatever current problems there are, and how confident we can be that DCPS can correct those problems, and do a better job than MPD,” Mendelson told City Paper on Thursday. 

The chairman also spoke with City Paper on Monday, before Grosso released his budget proposal. Mendelson said Monday that the best approach would involve hearings on the issue of security in schools, because lawmakers need to better understand the issue before acting too hastily. He pointed to a discrepancy between what Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allensaid about the ratio of security guards and social workers to students at Eastern High School and what school board members said. Allen said during a recent budget oversight hearing that the school had 8 contract security guards and 5 social workers, but school board members testified to there being more counselors and social workers than guards, the chairman noted.      

“Where I’m coming from is that there’s a very legitimate public discourse right now about whether we have in our society resorted too much to too many police. And that’s a fair question,” he continues. “So let’s look at the schools and see whether we simply have found it easier to get more security in a school rather than looking at what is really what we need. There needs to be analysis and discussion rather than jumping to the conclusion.”

Black Swan Academy, a D.C.-based nonprofit focused on empowering Black youth, has been leading the call for police-free schools. “Cops need to be out of schools because they make kids feel unsafe and sometimes, might even make kids not want to be in school,” says Ifetayo, a third grader and Ward 8 resident who attended an action Tuesday in which activists visited lawmakers’ homes to call for the removal of police from schools.

Black Swan Academy supports Grosso’s proposal to end MPD’s school security contract that employs roughly 320 private guards, but wants even more reform. “It’s not enough. It’s nowhere near enough,” says Samantha Paige Davis, its executive director.  

Grosso’s proposal does not address the issue of specially trained MPD officers, or school resource officers, that patrol the outside of campuses. These officers are under the purview of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety and Allen, who chairs of the committee, did not address this issue in his budget. 

Black Swan Academy believes there should be no school resource officers or armed school officers, and unarmed security guards under DCPS oversight need to be trained in deescalation, conflict resolution, and anti-racist cultural competency. Davis also says these guards should also be trained to create relationships with students.

Also important to Black Swan Academy is reducing MPD’s overall budget and diverting those funds to violence interruption and health care programs. Black students are disproportionately targeted by MPD: According to a ACLU DC analysis of stop and frisk data over a five-month period, 88.6 percent of minors stopped were Black.      

MPD and DCPS did not respond to City Paper’s request for comment on Grosso’s proposal. 

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MPD was not always in charge of security in schools. The police department’s oversight of dozens of school resource officers and hundreds of contractual security guards happened over the last 15 years.     

The Council created the “School Safety Division” within MPD in response to the fatal shooting of 17-year-old James Richardsonat Ballou High School in February 2004. Thomas Boykin, who was subjected to taunts and teasing for being from Barry Farm, shot Richardson, a star football player, and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. According to Ballou teachers, students, and the police at the time, security was a “joke” and never addressed the bullying that stemmed from a rivalry between neighborhoods and manifested into the first fatal shooting inside a D.C. school in more than five years.      

“This decision acknowledges that, increasingly, violence in schools is a result of problems that begin in District neighborhoods. Giving MPD responsibility of school security will help improve communication about these issues between MPD and DCPS officials,” wrote then-chairperson of the judiciary committee Kathy Patterson in her recommendation of the Metropolitan Police Department School Safety and Security Act to the rest of her colleagues. “The legislation does not authorize or envision only MPD officers policing DCPS hallways,” she added.

Before MPD managed security in schools, DCPS did. In testimony to the judiciary committee in 2004, the Office of the Inspector General cited concerns about security personnel attendance, professionalism, and workforce diversity when DCPS oversaw the contract. The Council ultimately passed the Metropolitan Police Department School Safety and Security Act of 2004, but public testimony was mixed on whether the bill was a good idea.

There are currently 98 school resource officers who split their time between traditional public schools and public charter schools. MPD is also responsible for the $23 million contract with Security Assurance Management Inc that employs roughly 320 private guards in traditional public schools. A MPD spokesperson says the guards, who are based inside the schools, are not armed, but the school resource officers, who only enter campuses when called upon, are armed and receive firearms training twice a year. DCPS employs 17 additional armed officers who support students traveling to and from schools, as well as respond to incidents at schools. “They support the entire district and are not stationed at any one school,” a DCPS spokesperson says of the 17 DCPS special police officers.

MPD releases annual reports on its School Safety Division. In its 2019-2020 report, the police department highlights how officers picked up youth for truancy violations more than 1,500 times this past academic year, and how there was a 27 percent reduction in the number of incidents where guards identified students trying to enter a school with a weapon. These reports do not offer breakdowns based on race, but activists have said youth of color are over-policed. Their experiences are borne out in the little publicly available data on race and policing in schools.   

This past academic year, 100 percent of school-based arrests involved students of color, according to the 2019 School Report Card. 338 students were arrested; 312 of those arrested were Black and 26 were Latinx. 104 students with disabilities were arrested.

Eduardo Ferrer of the Georgetown Juvenile Justice Initiative understands that most arrests have to do with interpersonal disputes, fights, or threats, based on conversations he’s had with his clients. He knows only of a few instances where arrests are related to weapons. 

“Are we ever going to get to that point where we can be 100 percent sure we’re not going to have another school shooting? Unfortunately, in this day and age when school shootings seem so rampant, probably not,” Ferrer says. “But I think we are going to prevent more harm overall—not just school shootings but fistfights, stabbings, issues that carry on outside of school, disputes between rival neighborhoods, et cetera—if we can shift our approach to prevention and intervention rather than reaction.”

He supports Grosso’s proposal to move the security contract from MPD to DCPS, but also hopes the Council can still eliminate MPD’s School Security Division during this budget cycle. He also thinks DCPS shouldn’t wait for the Council to pass a budget before working with community-based organizations like Black Swan Academy to reimage safety in schools.

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Some of the people advocating for money to be directed from policing to mental health care are the first to defend the security guards or school resource officers in their own schools. 

Ronald H. Brown High School teacher Ashley Kearney has good relationships with the security guards in her school. They greet staff and students as they enter the building or during classroom transitions. But she knows her positive experiences with guards are predicated on whether they want to establish a relationship with staff and students. And they aren’t necessarily trained to, she says. Kearney recalls speaking with a first-year security guard about his training in the teacher’s lounge one day. He said he was told not to relate to students in a certain way.  

“We are a restorative practice school, so that’s not going to cut it,” Kearney tells City Paper

Kearney is glad the Council is thinking about what public safety should look like in schools. She remembers clearly the city’s response to the Ballou shooting in 2004—Richardson was her former neighbor and friend—and doesn’t believe the issue was whether there was enough security in the school at the time, but why Richardson wasn’t transferred to another school when the school knew that Richardson was being threatened. Now the city has a chance to act differently.  

“The better way to respond is to be proactive,” Kearney says. “Do I think that schools need the autonomy to be able to support students in a more restorative approach? Yes.”

Those staff members who might be wary of calls for police-free schools or defunding the police in general see police as being the only support available. “They lean on the system that is providing,” she says.

DCPS Chancellor Dr. Lewis Ferebee said during his department’s budget hearing, where he defended police presence in schools, that he is not aware of any scenario where a traditional or charter school requested the removal of law enforcement. But surveys suggest that both schools and the public would be open to less officers if money was diverted to other supports. According to a preliminary survey from the Washington Teachers’ Union, two-thirds of teachers indicate “our schools can be made safer by diverting funds that have gone to MPD to increase school-based staff that provide social, emotional, and other supports for our students.” A DC Fiscal Policy Institute poll says a majority of 590 voters support “removing police-contracted personnel from schools and reinvesting these dollars in school-based mental health.” 

Anacostia High School teacher Ronald Edmonds appreciates the security guards in his school because they have gone out of their way to create a relationship with his students. He feels the same way about some of the school officers. One DCPS officer, who goes by KT and is also the JV basketball coach, has been a positive role model for Edmonds’ godson. But Edmonds also recognizes the systemic problems around policing, and has witnessed school officers abuse their authority in his 26 years of teaching.            

“They are the eyes and ears that educators don’t always have the time for,” says Edmonds of the security guards in his school. “I believe if you took the uniform off those individuals and put them in plain clothes, they would be just as effective because of their personalities and because they care about the jobs.”

Nathan Luecking, a social worker at Anacostia High School, also thinks these guards should be DCPS employees, so they can continue to do what they do best: create relationships with students and leverage those relationships to create a positive school climate. Luecking, who’s very critical of MPD, has complicated feelings about school resource officers.

“The SROs are basically trained in how to engage with a student, so they are little bit better at talking with them or working with them than your average patrol officer which is good in the short-term, but bad in the long-term because I think it sends a very confusing message, especially to the younger kids,” says Luecking. “Here you have an officer who is able to work with you and talk with you and mediate and isn’t so quick to arrest you, and then you step outside and you are engaging with another type of police officer who is very combative … I would be much more comfortable if the SROs were able to use their skill set in a way that isn’t explicitly linked to law enforcement, because we have some very talented SROs.”