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Minneapolis Public Schools adds violence interrupters to provide after-school safety

In the first in-person, semi-normal school year since Minneapolis Public Schools stopped using armed police as school resource officers, the district is testing a program where community members act as violence interrupters. 

A 9th grade physical science class at North High in Minneapolis.
A 9th grade physical science class at North High in Minneapolis.
MinnPost file photo by Erin Hinrichs

This school year was the closest to a typical, pre-pandemic school year for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS). Close, but not totally back — there were still periodic shutdowns caused by COVID-19 outbreaks and there was also the strike. 

Yet, big chunks of the year were in-person, allowing Minneapolis school officials to see the results of the decision, made in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, to end their contract with the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). Armed police are no longer school resource officers. 

In the place of traditional school resource officers, whose primary responsibility was to make sure that school grounds and surrounding areas were safe for a couple of hours after school let out, Minneapolis schools have turned to community members to help fill in that gap and foster security.

One resource, the Minneapolis Youth Coordinating Board, which has long partnered with Minneapolis schools and the city of Minneapolis, began providing personnel for after-school safety before the contract with MPD was terminated, and still continues to do so. 

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Although Minneapolis schools no longer use Minneapolis police, the district still partners with the city and has done so again, working with the city’s Public Health Department and the Office of Violence Prevention to add teams of violence interrupters to their after-school security apparatus.

Minneapolis city officials approved a contract in April for a five-month pilot program that deploys community members trained in de-escalation to Minneapolis schools. The collection of community members is known as MinneapolUs Violence Interrupters. 

The pilot began in February and ends in June at three Minneapolis high schools: North, South, and Patrick Henry. 

Minneapolis had already used the violence interruption model of community-based security, which involves community members, often in bright clothing walking in groups around the city late at night and in the early morning. The roving groups act as a deterrent to violence and as a trained team ready to intervene if violence breaks out. 

Sasha Cotton
Sasha Cotton
“The model is really forward-facing,” said Sasha Cotton, director of the Minneapolis Office of Violence Prevention. “People visibly see these folks out in community; in a uniform, engaging.”

Cotton said the roots of the Office of Violence Prevention began with the city’s Youth Violence Prevention Plan. 

“At our core, we are focused on keeping young people safe,” said Cotton. 

Given the long stretch students have spent schooling from home during the pandemic, Cotton said adding violence interrupters this year was a way to help returning students feel comfortable and settled. 

That time after school, as students leave and parents line the parking lot to pick them up, can be fun for students, said Cotton, but it can also turn a bit chaotic. If a student has a concern, she said, they can turn to a familiar face of a community member. And, although “spring hasn’t really sprung, yet,” Cotton said, when the weather does warm up, more students will be outside hanging around after school.

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“And that’s a good thing. We want kids to feel attached to their school and want them to spend time there,” said Cotton. “We also want active, pro-social adults supporting that.”

“The interrupters were already out there,” said Jason Matlock, a spokesperson for Minneapolis Public Schools. “The city is re-envisioning how they are managing public safety through many different means, and we partner with the city in many ways. When talking about modifying police work, modifying whose job is what, we’ve always had the need as a school district to stay in our lane. The school district can’t be responsible for safety throughout the whole city. So what are the systems that are out there to provide public safety in the city? As the interrupters were brought on as one of those pieces of that puzzle it seemed to be a natural conversation on how we could partner with them to make sure that the time outside of school is as safe as welcoming to our students.”

At Minneapolis high schools, interrupters are community members like coaches and other familiar faces, said Matlock, sometimes in a bright vest or in plain clothes, being present in and around school grounds during after-school hours. Having mentors on hand, who do more with students than simply secure a space is important. 

“Their models around engagement and relationship really fit a lot of what we try to instill in our (staff), which is a non-punitive means of how to work with our students,” said Matlock. “That’s vital to us.” 

The pilot still has two months left for school officials to determine if it’s worth keeping around. Matlock said it can be tough discerning if a safety measure works because, if there are no reports of trouble, it can be hard to tell if that was the result of certain security plans, or if that was a day in which no one did anything unsafe or violent. 

“I think the biggest test, really, the biggest thing we want to look at is, ‘How are the students feeling about it?’” said Matlock. “How are these groups operating? Just because you say you are part of a community … the proof is going to be in the pudding.”

With the removal of police as resource officers, said Matlock, the sight of police in badges and uniforms wielding guns will no longer be triggering or traumatic for students who have had negative interactions with police. But that also means there is no one wearing officious security clothing or carrying equipment as an unmistakable symbol of security. 

“With (interrupters), especially if they’re not in uniform or in a brightly displayed colored shirt, they are just more adults who are around,” said Matlock. “So it really relies on the relationship piece for you to feel like you know they’ve got you (secured).”