Fight for police-free schools has been years in the making

PHOENIX (AP) — The group of protesters started out small, just a handful of students who told officials at school board meetings why they wanted police out of Madison, Wisconsin, schools.

Over four years, their numbers grew but not their results. So they took to yelling from the audience and making emotional pleas about how police make students, especially those of color, feel unsafe.

But officers remained at four high schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District until George Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police ushered in a national reckoning over police brutality and racial injustice.

That’s when the school board president, who had long resisted removing police, had a change of heart. Madison quickly joined cities like Minneapolis, Phoenix, Denver and Portland, Oregon, in abandoning partnerships with police on campuses.

The move may seem sudden, but it follows years of well-organized, student-driven action. Only now, more grown-ups are listening.

Police officers assigned to schools wear a uniform, carry guns and get specialized training. Critics say having armed police on campus often results in Black students being disproportionately arrested and punished, leading to what they call the schools-to-prison pipeline.

Supporters say police make schools safer and that having someone trained to deal with young people is more effective than having random officers respond to large fights and other problems.

At the Madison school board protests, “we would basically go up there, be nice and when you would look up, when you were talking, they would be looking down at their phone or their computer. So that made us even more frustrated,” said Shyra Adams, 20, who graduated from high school in 2017 and is now a youth justice coordinator with Freedom Inc., the group behind the protests.

Adams says opponents called her and others thugs or angry protesters — “anything but youths.”

She attended nearly every monthly meeting since 2016, sharing how she was injured when two school resource officers broke up a fight between her and a boy she said was bullying her friend. Adams said the officers twisted her arm. They let the boy, who was white, go to class, and he got two days of suspension, while she got five.

“I knew there’s absolutely no way I can build a relationship with somebody like that,” Adams said of the officers.

The movement to pull police from campuses has been decades in the making but grew substantially with student activism in the last four years, said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project National Office, a nonprofit focusing on civil rights and justice.

“We were noticing that when you have police in schools, you have a culture clash. And that culture clash is that their job is to protect people but also they enforce the criminal code, and they were enforcing criminal code on regular teen behavior,” Dianis said of the early beginnings of the movement.

Recent national data on arrests at schools is hard to come by, but studies from a few years ago show that Black students are disproportionately punished both in schools and by law enforcement.

During the 2015-2016 school year, Black students accounted for 15% of total enrollment but 31% of students referred to law enforcement or arrested, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection put out by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Students of color are also more likely to be enrolled in a school with an officer. While 42% of U.S. high schools in the 2013-2014 school year had officers, 51% of high schools with large Black and Latino populations had them.

Students have spent the last several years targeting that disparity.

Michelle Ruiz, 21, protested at her Phoenix high school district as a senior, driven by concerns that officers on campus can result in students without legal status ending up in immigration custody. She struggled academically and questioned why there were so few resources but enough money for cops.

With support from immigrant rights group Puente, Ruiz began speaking out at school board meetings in 2017 with a handful of other students. Their numbers grew to 15 or 20 within a few months.

President Donald Trump’s election “brought a big momentum,” Ruiz said. But it took three years for the superintendent to announce the Phoenix Union High School District wouldn’t renew its $1.2 million contract with police.

“I feel, as a student who has been advocating this for a long time, happy, and it brings me hope that the district’s willing to change,” Ruiz said of the July 7 decision.

Activists in Madison also are celebrating a change of heart. The June 29 vote to eliminate police from high schools was introduced by school board President Gloria Reyes, a former police officer who had long resisted calls to abandon the contract.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Reyes said she understood institutional racism in police departments but believes it also exists in school administrations and that getting rid of police on campuses altogether isn’t an all-in-one solution.

After Floyd’s death, students protested outside Reyes’ home, and once the teachers union spoke out, she felt it was time for change.

“I had to step out of my own personal and professional beliefs around the issue and just reflect on the many voices and reflect on George Floyd and what was happening,” Reyes said. “And ultimately, I had to do what I felt in my heart was the right thing to do.”

The school board established a committee to create a new school safety plan. Reyes still worries about what will happen when a big fight breaks out and police who don’t know the students and lack special training show up.

That’s a major concern for Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

Canady says school resource officers are carefully selected and trained to work with teenagers. They’re usually veteran officers who have volunteered with young people, such as coaching sports or leading church youth groups.

“We train our people to be really thoughtful about arrests, and we want to do everything to avoid an arrest,” Canady said.

His organization trained 10,000 school resource officers last year, which he estimates is roughly half those in the country. They usually get about 40 hours of training before they’re assigned to a school and have ongoing instruction, Canady said.

For Adams, the youth organizer in Madison, the fight isn’t over. She says she’s working to ensure that students and parents have more say in decision-making and that the district creates a transformative justice program that keeps kids out of jail.

“Folks just think that after we got cops out of schools that’s it, and it’s that simple. It’s not,” Adams said.