The move has inspired many other districts in the US to make a similar decision, or at least consider it.
School resource officers have been a common element in American public schools for decades. Their goal is to keep the campus safe and even mentor the students. But activists say these officers have been criminalizing black and Latino students.
Why are there police in schools?
These officers have the same training, the same capabilities, and the same resources as other members of the police or sheriff’s department, but their roles are more multifaceted. They resolve disputes, monitor bus traffic, and simply provide security, all while serving as counselors, mentors, and sometimes teachers.
Violent confrontations can scare students.
Many confrontations between police and students in schools have turned violent, reflecting some interactions between the police and people on city streets.
Those interactions have scared students like Amir Lumumba, 12, who saw an SRO at his elementary school in Dayton, Ohio, when he handcuffed one of his classmates after a fight broke out.
“I was incredulous,” Amir told CNN. “There is more than one way to get a child out of a classroom. You don’t have to put him down, handcuff him to go to the office.”
Amir, now in eighth grade in Montgomery County, Maryland, has been advocating for months against expanding the Montgomery Public Schools SRO program to middle schools.
Students of color and people with disabilities are often disproportionately punished, advocates and students say.
Black students represented 15% of the student body and 31% of the referral or arrests. Sixty-five percent of the arrests were students of color or mixed race.
“I don’t think SROs should be in school because I feel like young blacks like me are attacked more often than other people,” said Amir.
What would police-free schools be like?
It is unclear how school districts will redirect previously allocated funds for sworn officials on campus.
Some advocates, such as Keri Smith, deputy director of Parents & Youth United in Denver, are concerned that those funds are being used to reinforce other infrastructure or systems that still criminalize youth.
“We want the police to get out of the schools and not just the bodies,” said Smith. “We don’t want to take out the police and add more cameras and more metal detectors.”
Instead, school officials should study funding for art and music programs and increase the number of counselors, Smith said.
“It is extremely unnecessary and a bad allocation of money (SRO program) considering the fact that we only have one social worker in a school with 2,000 students or we have a nurse, one day a week for 2,000 students,” Benas told CNN.
Benas said that after Floyd’s death and the clashes between police and protesters in Raleigh, she and her classmates began to question the ways they have traditionally been disciplined and how school resources are distributed.
The petition has now accumulated more than 4,000 signatures.
Some say SROs are still the best community policing
For Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association’s School Resource Officers, it’s disappointing to see communities move to remove SROs from schools without first considering additional training or other changes in the way officers operate.
“If school districts have good and solid SRO programs, then they are eliminating what could be the best community-based surveillance program that any community could have,” Canady told CNN.
SROs play a role in preventing school shootings and have stopped them in the past. But they also serve as a deterrent to other types of crime, he said.
“There will be assaults, there will be drug problems on campus, there will be intruders,” Canady said. “There will be dangers from abroad that are not only in the category of active shooters.”
Some school officials agree that SROs can have a positive impact on campuses.
“We have seen less violence, fewer suspensions. We have seen more academics and more children wanting to be law enforcement officers,” Art McCoy, superintendent of the Jennings School District in St. Louis County, Missouri, told CNN.
Students in the Missouri school district will continue to see and interact with sworn officers when they return to campus, he said.
The school district has made some adjustments in recent years, following the 2014 murder of Michael Brown, McCoy said.
The district agreed with St. Louis County Police that officers must represent at least 75% of the student population, which is predominantly black, or at least come from neighborhoods served by the district.
“That is the level of respect and redistribution of power,” McCoy said. “It’s about turning it into a community that loves each other.”
“It is not them against us, it is just all of us,” added the superintendent.
Canady, along with some school leaders, believes that confrontations between SROs and students, including violent incidents, can be prevented if officers are properly trained.
Most law enforcement officials have some training on youth issues, but SROs should receive additional training on implicit biases and adolescent mental health problems, Canady said.
“If we don’t find a way to repair this relationship, starting with the young,” Canady said, “then we will have one more generation of adults who will eventually have that disconnect.”