The role of police in schools is being debated in Kalamazoo

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Should there be a police presence in schools?

A grassroots group of Kalamazoo parents, educators, students, and others is pushing the question. They oppose the idea, based on its assertion that there is no hard data to prove it benefits students.

“Due to ongoing police violence nationwide and in light of recent local events that have demonstrated law enforcement’s disregard for the safety of our youth, it has become clear that the presence of police in our students’ learning environment is inherently unsafe,” states the group, called PACCT, in a petition that is under consideration by the Kalamazoo Public Schools.

The group, whose acronym stands for Promise Advocacy for Children & Community Transformation, has a nine-member board and claims about 100 members. And it exists primarily through its online outreach to others. It created the demands that protestors presented at various points throughout the recent action in downtown Kalamazoo following the killing of George Floyd. 

PACCT is calling on Kalamazoo Public Schools “to immediately terminate School Resource Officer agreements with local law enforcement agencies and immediately remove any law enforcement personnel that are assigned to or otherwise routinely present in school buildings or on school property or during regular school hours and any school-run events and activities.”

In focus are professional police officers that serve in Kalamazoo Central, Loy Norrix, and Phoenix high schools as School Resource Officers. The school district has long had contracts to retain an officer from the Kalamazoo Township Police Department at Kalamazoo Central and another that retains officers from the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety to serve Loy Norrix and Phoenix.

“Everyone has been talking anecdotes about why police are good in the schools,” said Majyck Dee, board president of PACCT. “Nobody has once presented any evidence-based (arguments) to say why police are in schools. We have shared our anecdotes and we have given you data and facts about why they should not be in schools in the first place.”

She said the current SRO contract calls for officers “to investigate criminal activity, enforce state statutes, township ordinances and make proper referrals to the criminal justice system. … That is part of their job description,” Dee said. “That should not be in our schools.”

As a grandparent with grandchildren in the schools and one whose children attended Kalamazoo schools, she said the district is racist and, harkening back to slave days, said that if there is to be change, that needs to be done from an abolitionist framework rather than a reformist framework.

Retaining School Resource Officers was supported by several people who offered comments during parts of a three-hour and 36-minute digital school board meeting on Thursday evening, the first for new Superintendent Dr. Rita Raichoudhuri. (She was welcomed to the community by nearly everyone who spoke on various topics throughout the evening, including one from Kalamazoo Community Foundation President and CEO Carrie Pickett-Erway.)  Supporters of the SRO program included four administrators from Kalamazoo Central, Washington Writers Academy, and Loy Norrix. Among them was Phoenix High School Principal Mark Hill and Loy Norrix Principal Chris Aquinaga.

In regard to getting rid of the officers, Aquinaga said, “I strongly disagree with this. In my opinion, the School Resource Officers at the high schools are invaluable additions for the safety and welfare of our students. In a high school setting of 1,700 young, but often very grown, adults, the presence of our SROs serves as a deterrent to certain conflicts which could arise." And when there are conflicts that do arise the officers have shown great restraint in their actions, Aquinaga said.

He and others praised officers for participating in many school events, ensuring young people are not alone before or after school, and being a resource for students who have no others.

Along with Ajamian Gardner, assistant principal of Kalamazoo Central High School, Aquinaga said SROs have done a great job of de-escalating situations, building relationships, and guiding students. And if there was ever a mass shooting or major event, he said he would rather have an officer available to respond in a matter of seconds rather than minutes.

KPS Trustee Tandy Moore said she recently watched Kalamazoo Public Safety officers antagonize and shoot apparently non-lethal projectiles at peaceful protesters during a rally against racial injustice in downtown Kalamazoo. While officers have forged good relationships with some students, she said armed officers have no place in the schools.

“In the defense of having officers in our schools, we are being told that they are mentors, they are coming to activities, that they are reading books (with students), that they are forming relationships with students in all of these ways,” Moore said. “All of those roles can be filled by people who are not also police. … Yes, we do need mentors. We need people to come in and read books. We need to let the community in to do that. We don’t need police to do any of that work.”

She suggested that the district consider using the $70,000 each it pays at Kalamazoo Central and Loy Norrix to pay for additional staff training on such things as conflict resolution, restorative practices, and de-escalation techniques.

Echoing an earlier caller, she said, “We need to imagine better. We need to get out of this fear-based rut and imagine a different way to do things.”

A 2018 graduate of Loy Norrix said a lot of students developed close relationships with the SROs and, “I think it’s very important that we keep Resource Officers in school.”

“Not only are the School Resources Officers there for our protection -- God forbid there’s a school shooter,” she said. “They’re also trained medically. As someone who has a number of mental health issues and clinical health issues, he (the officer at her school) was very imperative. He helped not only during a health crisis that I had, but for other students who had more severe ones.”

Among the callers, one woman said there are not enough black officers in the schools and that perpetuates fear. She said the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety “is a threat to our community, especially to our children and their future.” She suggested that money used to pay SROs be redirected to pay for more social workers and aids.

Another woman said, “The fact is, we can handle issues in our schools without police officers. We can have police officers nearby. Most of us on this call never had a police officer in our schools growing up. Since then, with police officers in schools, we have significantly harmed black and brown children.”

Dee said PACCT has for years been working to change the schools’ suspension policy, in which black and brown students “have more contact with police based on their behaviors because they are suspended more.” She said black and brown students in KPS are suspended at four to five times the rate of white students. And she asserts that is a result of the police presence, more students are ultimately out of school and subject to get into trouble. That leads them to incarceration.

Ray Ampey and James Ray are former Kalamazoo Public Safety officers and former campus safety officers for KPS. They were among those who countered, saying that School Resources Officers have helpful relationships with students and provide young people with a positive ongoing image of police.

“I know first-hand we have a lot of work to be done,” Ray said. “But taking the SROs out of the schools is not moving forward. That would be taking a step backward in our community and it would also continue to foster the us-versus-them mindset that comes from members of both the police and the community.”

Tony Thomas, a campus safety officer at Kalamazoo Central, said, “One of the things I see is that the Resource Officer brings support for the kids who feel they are by themselves. He’s helping children. He’s working with us. We’re working with him to understand how to better serve our students. And to want to remove him from the school is really to remove security. Your children are safe. It seems as if we don’t want our kids to be safe.”

Saying there is a mistrust of police by people in the black and brown communities, caller Tonya Bellamy said, “Currently the police in schools create an atmosphere of fear for students. We must remove the SROs from our schools because police should not serve as social workers. To reimage the role of the village in schools we must establish restorative practices.” That will include having adults in the community addressing misconduct and violence.

In its petition, PACCT states, “Eliminating police presence is a necessary safety measure and an important step in eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline. But more work is required to create a safe and equitable educational experience for our students. While the district divests in policing and programs that support punitive discipline, KPS must commit to and invest in positive approaches to building a safe school climate.” Among its recommendations are:

• Working with stakeholders to create a school safety plan;

• Promoting youth and parent leadership, with access and authority given to monitor, evaluate and advise the district on ongoing efforts toward creating a safe and supportive school culture;

• Expanding opportunities for individuals and organizations in the community to be present and active in schools;

• Providing ongoing training and support for all school staff in positive approaches to school climate and discipline, including trauma-informed practices, conflict resolution, peer mediation, de-escalation techniques, and cultural competencies.

“I don’t support being policed,” said KPSTrustee TiAnna Harrison. But she said she supports letting officers who have taken an oath to protect and serve, do what is necessary to keep people safe.

KPS Board President Patti Scholler-Barber said the school board will continue to discuss the matter. Members of PACCT plan to host a listening session on the SRO issue on June 24 with new KPS Superintendent Rita Raichoudhuri, police officials, and others. Invited guests include Kalamazoo Public Safety Chief Karianne Thomas.

Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.
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