On Tuesday evening, the St. Paul Public Schools board joined a growing number of urban districts nationwide in voting to remove police officers from its school buildings. The move came on the heels of a similar action taken by the Minneapolis Public Schools board earlier this month, which was prompted by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
District leaders in both cities have been directed to pull together alternative school safety models ahead of the upcoming school year.
For years, the momentum behind a change had been building. Students of color are disproportionately impacted when it comes to the criminalization of behavior issues. And police officers aren’t trained to address students’ underlying mental health needs. In fact, their very presence inside a school building can be re-traumatizing for some students.
These are the sorts of things that administrators in Intermediate School District 287 felt compelled to act on four years ago. The district — which serves students with some of the greatest social-emotional needs and learning disabilities in Brooklyn Center, Wayzata, Eden Prairie, Richfield and seven other public school districts located west of the Twin Cities — opted to replace its School Resource Officers (SROs) with Student Safety Coaches (SSCs).
These staff specialize in mental health, de-escalation, restorative justice and safe physical interventions. Their primary focus — and skill set — lies in cultivating trusting relationships with students so that they can ward off and mitigate behavior issues.
This homegrown model has proven effective, says Superintendent Sandy Lewandowski. According to district data, in the pilot school, arrests went from 65 to 12 in the first year. Now, across all four school buildings, the district averages five arrests per year.
“We know that when you’re a setting IV special-education student — particularly if you’re a student of color, knowing you have disabilities — you are really at a high risk of going through what is termed the ‘pipeline to prison,’” she said. “We wanted to do everything in our control to switch the environment to make it less of a risk factor for our students.”
Rethinking the safety model
In deciding to move away from the common School Resource Officer mode and piloting an alternative, Lewandowski knew the stakes were high. Her teachers and staff deal with a pretty significant number of safety incidents — far more than most other public school districts.
That’s because her district serves a much higher concentration of students with significant mental health needs that can result in behavior issues.
A large number of those students fall at the very high end of the autism spectrum, she says.
And many of the students who enroll in the district’s alternative learning center programs have a marred history with school, one that involved lots of moving around and unmet needs. Roughly half of the students in ISD 287 identify as students of color.
Prompted in part by the cost of maintaining contracts with three separate police departments — in New Hope, Brooklyn Park and Minnetonka — and in part by an apparent mismatch in race and skill sets, the district decided to chart its own path in 2016.
“The relationships [with the police departments] were good, but we also noted that as mental health needs grew and grew in our student population that we were not looking for a law enforcement response to mental health,” Lewandowski said. “We were looking more at a trauma-healing type of response.”
Inspiration for the SSC model, she adds, came from a simple observation of internal talent: Educational assistants were often some of the best at responding to students’ emotional-behavioral needs. These staff also better reflected the diversity of the student population.
“We noted that often times the most skilled education assistants we hired had a background in mental health. Some had training as a police officer. Many come to us with community experiences that were valuable,” Lewandowski said. “And they just are really good at settling down and de-escalating a situation so it doesn’t get to be a major safety issue.”
Relationships at the center
Theon Jarrett, one of the pilot SSCs who now oversees the program, started out working as an education assistant in the district. He’s helped grow the program to at least two SSCs stationed in each building, plus a few extra who float between buildings, offering added support where needed.
Staff receive crisis intervention training, using a model offered by the Crisis Prevention Institute. It prioritizes de-escalation techniques. Physical intervention is reserved as a last-resort tool, and it never involves holding kids down on their stomachs, he says. It’s only used as a means to transport or protect a student when they pose an immediate safety risk to themselves or to others.
“When an officer responds to a situation, their mindset is they want to control it. That’s not what we do here. We don’t control young people,” Jarrett said. “We do our best to support, listen to them, validate them, give them a voice, then get them back to class. That’s the ultimate thing we want to do — get them back to class.”
Positive student interactions are at the heart of this model’s success. That’s why SSCs spend the bulk of their day checking in with students as they enter the school building, sitting in on classes and serving as a sounding board for students who seek out their counsel, or who just need to vent.
“It takes a while to build trust. Kids clearly don’t trust police officers. There’s a lot of trauma behind it. But we have an open-door policy. We also have a fresh-start mentality,” said Don West, another founding SSC.
West came to the district with a background in social work and experience working in a federal Level IV setting. He says this new role feels natural because he can relate to the kids he’s working with – not just the distractions and trauma that they’re dealing with outside of the school building, but also with their emotional-behavioral struggles. He probably would have received the same diagnosis as a student, he says, adding “they just had breakout spaces they’d put you in when you were not paying attention.”
As an SSC, he’s involved in nearly every aspect of his students’ school day — from the bus to the entryway to the classroom to the lunchroom to even sitting in on their Individualized Education Plan meetings.
When he’s called to respond to a crisis in the building, he depends on the social currency he’s built up with students through all of these daily interactions to calm them back down.
“You have to understand that a hurt person will bleed on someone who didn’t cut them. That’s my mantra,” he said. “I know they’re hurt. I want to help them. What that looks like is anger, frustration, acting out. You want people in this position to be able to navigate that, because that’s where the trust comes in.”
‘Stay the course’
Reforms to how schools handle student behavior issues — and their underlying mental health needs — are long overdue in many districts. If schools don’t build up their capacity to respond, both preventatively and restoratively, behavior crisis in schools — along with the associated discipline disparities — may very well intensify due to the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, says Lewandowski.
“Experts are saying that kids are going to be coming back with more trauma than they left with,” she said. “So it makes sense, to us, to have this model be part of our response to trauma and mental health.”
Her staff do still call 911, on occasion. All students walk through a metal detector at the front door. And security guards still staff front desks, primarily serving as a gatekeeper for adult visitors who enter the building.
But the SSCs are in charge of responding to all student and teacher safety incidents. They’re the buffer between students and law enforcement, between students and teachers.
It’s a system that relies heavily on the ability of SSCs to build trust with both students and with teachers — and the latter can prove challenging, especially in the beginning.
“They have to stay the course,” West says of districts considering safety alternatives to police in schools. “Their biggest push-back is not going to come from the students. It’s going to come from staff. And the ability to help staff stay safe is important.”
Jarrett adds that, in the beginning, when teachers pushed back on the idea of removing armed police officers from school buildings, that prompted deeper conversations and reflections about race and police relations and trauma and student needs.
“So a lot of that was just building capacity in our staff — let’s really peel that onion back and get to the root of what you’re actually saying,” he said.
It certainly helps to have a strong vision from district and building leadership, he adds. Those looking to chart a similar path forward will need someone at the top to champion it. Someone who can articulate, over and over, the beliefs driving the change: the need to stop the over-policing of students of color, to stop criminalizing mental health.
“I don’t want it just to be like that’s the novel thing to do right now because of Mr. George Floyd — what happened to him, his murder. I don’t want that in two years no one else is thinking about Mr. George Floyd anymore: ‘Let’s just get the police back because it’s easy to do,’” Jarrett said. “No, we have to be creative. We have to give it time. And we just have to work at it. It’s work. It’s constant work because it’s always changing. We’re talking about young people and they all are different. So it’s going to be challenging.”