By Shannon Hodge, Founding Executive Director, DC Charter School Alliance
It’s been nearly a year since many here in D.C. and across the country took to the streets to protest the unjust killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. That pivotal moment and the weeks and months that followed proved to be an inflection point, raising questions about police misconduct and historic injustices that have left many in our communities distrustful of an institution charged with protecting and serving those communities.
When it comes to our schools, the presence of police is complicated. Schools are often at odds with the way police engage students, yet need their help to respond to extreme circumstances with high safety risks.
There are legitimate questions to grapple with on what the proper role of police in our schools are. But without an overall implementation plan with viable, fully resourced alternatives about how to best handle safety concerns, we cannot center solutions on removing police from schools entirely. What schools need and want are nuanced approaches to safety and security that balance the need to maintain safe spaces for learning with the fact that many students and staff have had negative experiences with police. And school leaders must be included in developing the solutions to these problems.
Police meaningfully involved in schools can help administrators stay current on what’s happening in communities that may affect or spill over into school buildings. They can provide a sense of security that many students need to learn. And they can resolve issues that may be beyond the scope of school administrators, like guns in buildings.
Take Friendship Collegiate Academy, for example. In 2009, Friendship’s school leaders were in crisis dealing with near-daily occurrences of violence in front of the Metro stop near their campus on Minnesota Avenue in Northeast. Rival groups brawled with each other and would threaten, bully, and sometimes physically harm students walking by as school let out each day. Yet, the D.C. police officer assigned to the academy had been pulled because police headquarters believed only D.C. Public Schools were entitled to school resource officers.
For many years, charter schools did not receive the same police protection from the city that traditional schools enjoyed, leaving schools like Friendship in crisis. We’ve had to push the city hard over the years for an official, fair, and equitable relationship with school resource resource officers. And thanks to Chairman Mendelson’s leadership on school safety and equity over the years, we’ve gotten closer to that reality.
Maintaining safe learning spaces for our students is critically important, which is why we must prioritize the needs of our families to provide a real, effective safety net. To make that happen, the Council and the Metropolitan Police Department must engage with school leaders, students, and parents to decide who can and should perform certain functions better, and put those more appropriate services in place. That includes providing greater clarity about expectations for police officers inside school buildings; mandatory training in child development, trauma response, and de-escalation strategies; and greater clarity on what schools are required to produce (documents, students as witnesses, etc.) or provide for officers.
And the Council should also support many of the recent recommendations made by the DC Police Reform Commission on school security. For example, police officers should be required to disarm in schools unless responding to a violent incident. MPD and other law enforcement agencies should be prohibited from serving warrants, detaining, or arresting students on campus or at school-related events. And resources should be based on the school’s and surrounding neighborhood’s actual needs.
Finally, to ensure that schools are able to properly work with MPD on these recommendations, the MPD and charter schools must have an official memorandum of understanding for the School Resource Officer program and other MPD involvement in schools. That’s how we will create a shared system of accountability, support, and expectations that enhances our learning environments.
School leaders make decisions about how to best approach the safety and security of their schools through deep reflection on the work and mission of their schools and through engagement with their school communities about how to best handle concerns. School leaders and students know what they need to feel safe. That’s why any solution about police presence in schools must include them at the table.