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One year after Madison School Board ended police contract, MMSD focuses on 'proactive' safety practices

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The Madison School Board voted June 29, 2020, to end the school resource officer contract with the Madison Police Department.

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One year ago this week, the Madison School Board joined others around the country as it eliminated its school-based police officer program.

One month after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, captured through bystander video, the unanimous vote included some board members who had previously been in favor of the school resource officers.

It came even as Freedom Inc., which had demanded the district remove officers from schools for years during public comment at board meetings, could only watch online, as the board met via Zoom in the earlier months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Freedom Inc. youth justice director Bianca Gomez recalled it as “a very politically charged time” and said the decision came “on the backs” of Breonna Taylor and Floyd. While she will “always celebrate the win and celebrate our young people” and their organizing, those deaths at the hands of police complicate the reflection.

“It's always a bittersweet moment to celebrate because Black people had to die in order for that moment to happen,” Gomez said. “There had to be mass uprising for that moment to happen. There had to be Black suffering for that moment to even be a possibility.”

[Police-free schools: Security staff step up as MMSD strategizes safety]

Further complicating the reflection is that one year later, the decision has only affected a brief, two-month window when high school students were back in buildings at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Even then, they were in smaller groups split into cohorts, with some students remaining virtual through the end of the year.

The district created a Safety and Security Ad Hoc Committee that met virtually throughout the first semester of the school year, with 29 community members and two School Board members: Savion Castro and then-board president Gloria Reyes, one of the former supporters of SROs who voted to eliminate the contract.

“If you would have asked me in 2019, would the vote to remove cops in schools be unanimous, I would have said, 'No,'” Castro said. “But I think in that moment where everybody was deeply reflecting, a part of me was a little surprised that folks came around to take that action, but another part of me was (thinking), what else could we have done?”

District spokesman Tim LeMonds called the SRO program “just one spoke in the wheel” of broader work toward student safety that has been going for the past few years, with other initiatives like restorative justice receiving more focus since the removal of SROs. That previous work helped prepare staff for reopening buildings this past spring, as they focused on social and emotional health and making sure students felt a sense of belonging at school.

“That allowed us to really strengthen and test ourselves and our effectiveness when working with and supporting students who were struggling during the pandemic, so there was a lot of that work going on as well,” LeMonds said.

Castro believes the district is moving in the right direction but knows it will take an ongoing commitment to make restorative justice work.

“We're taking the long view and trying to think boldly about what we want justice to look like in our schools because restorative justice can't just be pegged as a turn of discipline (policies), it's got to be a mindset of how we navigate conflict, of how we rectify injustices,” Castro said.

Shifting ground

The Madison Metropolitan School District had officers stationed in its four comprehensive high schools for nearly two decades, and the board had approved a new three-year agreement with the Madison Police Department just over a year before voting to end that same contract.

But June 2020 was a radically different time than June 2019. Other districts, including those in the Twin Cities area where Floyd was killed, had begun to make similar decisions as they reckoned with systemic racism in policing and schools.

Castro said the vote was “a stepping stone to a much broader conversation about justice, and our schools and broader community.”

“We have some of the largest disparities in the country, with regard to discipline, with regard to reading, and these things are interconnected,” he said. “When we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, it's not just SROs, it's first graders being suspended from school, it's about their parents experiencing housing insecurity, all these things interplay with each other.”

[Safety and security work moves to superintendent's advisory committee]

The mood around SROs is continuing to shift. On the vote’s anniversary, Chalkbeat reported that a prominent national education civil rights group, The Education Trust, has lobbied the Biden administration to decrease the role of school police.

“The Biden administration must counter this dangerous narrative that more police, weapons, and surveillance in schools will help keep schools safe if it wishes to make true improvements to school climate nationwide,” a memo from the organization said.

Changes coming

The ad hoc committee’s 16 recommendations included investments in restorative justice, professionalizing school security assistants and reducing class sizes.

The School Board adopted the list earlier this year.

Some who participated were disappointed in how the committee ended, as some members asked for more time. But with budget planning season approaching, Reyes told the committee they had to come up with recommendations to make sure they were included for 2021-22.

The School Board approved budget items for new restorative justice positions and increased the pay for SSAs for 2021-22.

“Their role was just way bigger than school security assistants,” Castro said. “They were mentors to students, they were doing the work of building relationships and de-escalating conflict and kind of proving themselves that you don't need a badge or a gun to interact with young people who may be having a tough time, and they did not contribute to this school-to-prison pipeline.”

He acknowledged that “a part of me does wish that (the committee) went longer,” but said the work continues through a superintendent’s work group. Freedom Inc.'s Gomez, however, noted that work is behind closed doors while the committee was public, with all of its meetings broadcast on the district’s YouTube channel.

“I was not thrilled about the end result,” Gomez said. “And we know that when things are half-done they're going to be half-implemented.

“So I think there are a lot of great recommendations on the committee, but I don't know if we're going to see them through, and there's no way to hold the district accountable for doing them or not doing them.”

Measuring progress

One of the recommendations discussed by the committee came from Freedom Inc. itself, and called for direct community control over police involvement at schools. That included creating a group to investigate any incident in which police were called to school and potentially dole out punishment.

“I think there are some really well-intentioned people in the district, I do. I can't pretend like that's not true,” Gomez said. “But good intention does not change policy and practice, only policy and practice can change policy and practice.”

During the abbreviated 2020-21 school year, police were called to the comprehensive high schools a total of 46 times, according to an email from Madison Police Department police property supervisor Lorie Anderson. While she was not able to disclose specifics of the calls, they could be for a range of reasons, including information, theft and parking complaints, she said.

[Madison School Board: Urgency needed on reducing discipline disproportionalities]

Castro said he appreciated some points of the Freedom Inc. recommendation, but that state statutes prevent pieces of it, including some situations in which state law requires police be called to school. He’s still hopeful that what’s ahead will be much better for students than what’s come in the past.

“We've got to be serious about being proactive and safety,” he said. “And I think that policing as an institution is inherently reactive. And so we want to take root cause analysis, and really help students achieve success in their life.”

LeMonds said that while law enforcement “is always going to be a part of our community” and is required to respond to certain situations, the district’s focus is on preventing those situations from occurring.

“A lot of that work is focused on the intervention, working with students prior to these incidents,” he said. “We are implementing risk assessment programs to identify students who are at risk so that we can have those interventions and provide them the support that they need prior to all that.”

Gomez and Freedom Inc. will be following closely. She said the district will have to do more than surface-level social justice initiatives “to show the community that things are changing within the district for the better.” They’ll focus on discipline statistics and what young people are saying about the support — or lack thereof — they receive from the district, she said.

“That's how we measure progress, not by how the district tells us they have progressed,” Gomez said.

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