words by Noor Hindi, illustration by Chris Harvey

A week after the murder of George Floyd, the Minneapolis school board voted to end its contract with the city police department, effectively removing police officers from their classrooms. Cities like Seattle, Denver and Columbus followed suit, arguing that the presence of police officers in schools increases fear and anxiety in Black students.

In Akron, The Freedom BLOC, a Black-led organizing collaborative, published a list of demands to the Akron Police Department and the community. Of those was a demand that “police be removed from all public schools and be replaced with mental health-trained community resource personnel.”

Ray Greene, an organizer for Freedom BLOC, argues that trauma often leads to misbehavior among children and teens, and says focussing on mental health issues for students is a more conducive solution for misconduct because it gets at the root of the problem.

“Me having a bad day shouldn’t be criminalized. My mother being on drugs shouldn’t be criminalized. Me having anger issues shouldn’t be criminalized,” he says. “Those things can be handled with practical solutions that don’t include an armed police officer.”

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School Resource Officers arrived at APS, many other schools after Columbine shooting

Akron Public Schools currently has at least one school resource officer (SRO) at every high school and middle school. The use of SROs at APS began in the 1990s. 

Before this, Dan Rambler, director of student support and security for Akron Public Schools, says the district had hired a few part-time officers, but this led to inconsistent results. 

During the school years 2017-2018 and 2019-2019, APS paid more than $600,000 to APD for 13 SROs. 

Nationally, between the 1950s, when SROs were first implemented as a community policing initiative in Flint, Mich., and 1999, SROs were largely seen as a way to foster healthy relationships between police and youth. The position of school resource officers gained popularity after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, where two teenage gunmen killed 13 people and wounded 23 more. 

According to The Atlantic, after 1999, millions of dollars in federal grant funding was given to law enforcement agencies as a way to decrease the chances of another massacre occurring. Massacres that followed the Columbine High School shooting, such as those at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Massachusetts, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida and Santa Fe High School in Texas renewed interest in the use of SROs at schools.

Ward 10 councilwoman Sharon Connor worked in Akron Public Schools for almost 20 years, first at Roswell Kent Middle School, then later at Miller South. She says Columbine made the possibility and fear of a school shooting more visceral.

“I think we started to take things — not more seriously, but they became heightened because that revelation showed how easy things could get out of hand,” she says. “When you’re in the office, you’re in charge of 500 people’s children every day. That tranquility can change on a phone call, on a radio call, on a rumor, on anything.”

In some cases, SROs have become so ingrained in the school culture that many are coaches and regularly participate in the school’s programming. Marques Hayes, a teacher at East High School who also serves as the athletic director, says the SROs regularly help out at sporting events if tension arises, and he’s seen “some SROs who have been more than just SROs.”

In terms of school shootings, Hayes says it’s “better to be safe than sorry.”  

Carolyn Stevens, a parent of two APS students, says she agrees. One of her daughters attends Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts. 

“I always felt safe knowing my child was [at Miller South] along with whatever officer was on duty that day when there were numerous lockdowns for shootings in the neighborhood or all of the other not-so-great stuff that happened around that school,” she says. 

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‘I don’t know why they’re there:’ What do SROs do today? 

Many question the role of SROs and the negative impacts they may have on Black teenagers, including using excessive force and unnecessarily contributing to students getting involved with the juvenile justice system. Others question their utility in times of emergency. For example, in 2016, a video surfaced of SRO Ben Fields forcibly dragging a Black teenage girl out of her classroom at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina. Additionally, in 2018, following the entrance of gunman Nikolas Cruz to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, SRO Scot Peterson remained in his car and was later charged for failing to protect students.

Supporters of SROs argue that it is critical for them to be present in schools to cultivate relationships with the students. But the metrics APS uses to measure their success are vague. Rambler says their success is measured using two questions: “One, are they successful at building relationships with students and the school community? Two, do they develop those relationships that enable proactive support to the school community?

“We look at [SROs] as being part of the school,” he continues. “We’ve worked really hard to adjust what their role is in the building. And the primary purpose is to build relationships. From that develops a few things: One is it enables kids to see the officers differently. It enables them that when they see them on the street, they already know the officer because they interact with them every day at school.”

Additionally, Rambler argues that the discussion regarding SROs is complex because they have to be able to respond to incidents without underreacting and without overreacting.

“When we talk about SROs, it’s one of the things that we’re going to be challenged with,” he says. “You have one group that absolutely wants police in schools because they’re afraid of shootings, and they want us to metal-detect kids. That’s something that’s come up the last three or four years. And then we have another part of it where people don’t want police in the schools at all. As a school district, you have to balance those two sides and listen to your community and find the right result. And I don’t believe the right result is just to remove the officers because we have the right officers and because we’re doing the right work.”

In the contract between Akron Public School and the Akron Police Department, there is a clause that gives APS the authority to hire and relieve an officer that isn’t a good fit for students at the school. In the last 10 years, Rambler says three officers have been removed from APS, and some officers have been moved to different buildings. 

He stresses that the SRO’s role is not to interfere with student discipline from the school, but to be a resource for the students — though the contract between APS and APD gives SROs the freedom to respond to students who present “unruly behavior.” 

“The deployed police officers shall be expected to use their specialized knowledge and expertise to respond appropriately to unruly behavior that the police officer reasonably suspects may escalate into a violent, physical or verbal altercation,” the contract states. 

This gray area allows the role of police officers and teachers managing their classrooms to be blurred, creating unnecessary contact with law enforcement, argues Judi Hill, who worked as a teacher and in other roles at APS for 30 years. She now serves as president of the Akron chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 

“I saw this personally, where officers were removing kids from classrooms because they were throwing tantrums. Really? That made no sense to me,” she says. “We had lost light of what was our responsibility as educators and what was their responsibility. It was the job of police officers to keep the bad guys out, and it was our job as educators to take care of the kids within. That’s what I believe and I still believe that. 

“So if I have this Black kid in my classroom that’s driving me crazy, and every day he comes in later, and every day there’s a confrontation, it was an easy way to get rid of them,” Hill continued. “Have a police officer available to come in and intervene or yell at kids who were late in the hallway. I never saw that as their role. Never. And that was very frustrating for me.” 

Hill argues the role of SROs isn’t “well defined,” which leads to unnecessary patrolling of students, at best, and violence and involvement with the justice system at worst. 

Some students, like Firestone High School Junior Lindsey Sipplen, agree. Sipplen says she “wouldn’t feel unsafe if they weren’t there.” She states the safety team at her school, which is unarmed and often patrols the hallways, “have better relationships with the students” and align more with what she feels her school needs. The safety team is in de-escalation. There are currently three safety team members at each middle school, and four at each high school. 

“I’ve honestly never seen the SROs doing anything,” she says. “They’re kind of just there, but I don’t know why they’re there.”

Rambler says though the role of SROs and the safety team may seem “redundant,” they “are there to build relationships and support students, families, staff, the entire school community, and our community.”

“The safety team members are more involved on the front lines in the halls,” he says. “They walk with kids, help cover the cafeteria and all common areas. They are attempting to connect to kids and resolve issues before they happen. And if an issue occurs, they respond.  The SROs are much the same, but attempt to support the school staff and encourage the kids to listen to the staff. They do not become involved as an officer until it is required.”

But some parents feel that SROs unduly criminalize students. At East Community Learning Center, where there are two SROs (one for the middle school and one for the high school), parent Emory Saerlassar says a physical altercation between his child, Silas, and a few other kids quickly got out of hand when an SRO got involved last January. 

Emory says Silas is often vulnerable to bullying because of their disability. 

After the SRO broke up the fight between Silas, who is on the autism spectrum, and others, the SRO placed Silas in a room by themselves, and forced them to write about what happened, despite Silas being unable to write due to their disability. Emory says by the time he got there, Silas was “freaking out.” 

“They kept saying, ‘first you have to cooperate and tell us what happened. You have to write it down.’ Silas kept telling them ‘I can’t write,’” Emory says. “Even with their [Individualized Education Program], Silas is working on learning how to sign their name at 13. That’s where we’re at. Our long-term goal is to be at the point where they can write two sentences and fill out a short form. So Silas sitting and writing down a statement, it’s just not something they can do.” 

After the fight, Emory says one of the boys who participated in the fight was charged, and the case was sent to the court. This is a decision Emory doesn’t agree with. 

“The middle school kid that started attacking Silas, he ended up going to court. We had to give statements. And I kept saying, ‘it’s just kids getting into a fight.’ My kid was hurt, yes, but why are we involving the court system in this? The other kids involved were all Black, and I’m certain that played a role.”

Right now, about half of APS’s school resource officers are Black. Additionally, Mark Williamson, director of communication and news at APS says there is more than 60 mental health-trained personnel at APS. 

An underlying fear for parents is children getting unnecessarily involved with the juvenile justice system. According to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Black students “compromise only 16% of the student population, but represent close to a third of school-related arrests.” The report also finds that “within the education system, Black and American Indian students are punished more frequently and more harshly for the same, mostly minor, offenses than are white students.” Young Black men, who are often viewed as “violent, threatening, or criminals” are seen as “older than their true age and more culpable for their actions than their white peers.”

The report cites historical disinvestment in Black communities as a primary reason for these high numbers of incarceration, leading to trauma and mental health issues, which accounts for “90% of all youth in conflict with the law.”

“Disinvestment in communities of color creates social conditions such as over-policing, failing schools, and complex trauma exposure,” the report states. “Racialized policies and practices destabilize communities of color, prevent them from meeting their basic needs, and place people living in these communities in a perpetual cycle of disinvestment, poverty, structural violence, community violence, oppressive police and criminal justice system practices, racialized trauma, and demoralized schools.

“It is no surprise, then, that in the U.S., communities of color suffer from some of the highest rates of lifetime trauma experiences, including interpersonal violence, child abuse and neglect, poor health, and an ongoing barrage of negative stereotypes and micro-aggressions that disparage and undermine quality of life, well-being, and integrity of neighborhoods,” the report continues.

Once incarcerated, the process can retraumatize them, leading to “a cycle [that] contributes to potentially unhealthy outcomes as youth try to understand their situation and navigate the when, where, and how of their arrest.”

In Akron, not all cases go to court. Some are referred to the Family Resource Center, a nonpunitive space where families and children can receive assistance without a case being opened through the juvenile justice system. 

Whether a child gets sent to juvenile court depends on the level of the offense. Tier 1 offenses, like theft, marijuana possession and disorderly conduct are referred to the Family Resource Center and are not brought to trial. These account for about half of the cases which involve SROs. Tier 2 offenses are in-betweens, and the student may get charged but released to parents. And Tier 3 offenses include aggravated theft, bringing a gun to school, or making a significant threat against a peer or staff member. In this situation, a student may get sent to the Juvenile Justice Center.

But even a threat can be a tricky situation, Rambler says.

“The thing that has risen a lot is the various threats that come about. Poor relationships that turn into somebody threatening somebody,” Rambler says. “And that’s something the SROs are involved in but many times that’s actually handled from the school and through the threat assessment process, not just the SROs. They’re not necessarily going to be charged. That’s a fine line where we want to make sure kids are safe but also we want to make sure we align the right resources to them.”

Ray Greene argues that charging a child for a threat is an overreaction, and he’s seen cases where a student shouting “F— you” is considered enough of a threat for an officer to deem it “unruly” behavior. 

“You’re talking about threats that can be mediated by giving kids different words to use and understanding the frustration that comes behind those threats that they’re not going to do,” Greene says.

In Summit County, incarceration rates have steadily declined 

Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio, who has served at the Summit County Juvenile Court since 2003, says incarceration rates for young people have drastically decreased since then. In 2003, she says they were committing between 130-140 kids to the youth prison each year. Today, that number is down to eight, with an additional decrease in cases filed for delinquency cases in Summit County. 

She credits this decrease to prevention programs that disrupt the cycle of a youth coming in and out of the system.

“It’s a significant drop,” she says. “And we haven’t had an increase in juvenile delinquency filings as we decreased the number of youths we’re sending to youth prison. As a matter of fact, my experience has been that the kids we worked with in the community typically do much better than the youth we send to the [prison].”

Additionally, she says it’s “pretty unusual” to see a youth brought into the detention center from school. The only way this can happen, she says, is if a youth has a warrant issued for a serious offense and happens to show up at school, or they commit a serious offense, like bringing a gun to school.

Teodosio says the Summit County Juvenile Court spends “90% of our time on 10% of the kids.”

“I think the most common threads we see with the kids that are coming back to the court frequently are substance use, severe mental health disorders, a history of some kind of trauma, a history of disruption within the family,” she says. “And those are pretty tough things to tackle.”

One way the Summit County Juvenile Court, Freedom BLOC and Akron Public Schools is working on trying to tackle some of those issues is through the Peace Circles program, which launched a few years ago.

Through peace circles, SROs and community members can ask that a child who has committed a nonviolent offense be counseled rather than be dealt with through the juvenile justice system. Peace circles are either held at the board of education office, The House of the Lord Church or the Family Resource Center, and the Freedom BLOC has trained most of the safety team members at APS through the peace circle process. 

The circles require students to show up for six to 10 sessions with a facilitator. After the peace circle is over, a meeting is held between the facilitator, the guardians, a community member and someone the child trusts to get to the root cause of the behavioral problems and talk about what the child has learned.

Pastor Herman Matherson is one of 200 facilitators, community members and teachers in the program. This year, they’ve started holding peace circles with some of the youth in the juvenile detention center.

“I tell these young people, the difference between you and me is, ‘you got caught and I didn’t.’ If I made a left turn instead of a right turn, maybe you’d be on the other side of the table with me,” he says. “I try to communicate to them that this does not have to define you. It’s not the end of you. You can do better. We all make mistakes. But you can allow this to define you if you want to.”

Matherson says two of the biggest obstacles to working with kids are tackling their trauma and making sure they feel heard.

“Some of it is their inability to articulate what they feel. Their emotional vocabulary is somewhat limited, and it becomes difficult for some of them to explain their situation,” he says. “Some of their home situations will make you cry. The lack of hope, or a very limited hope, that they’re only going to get so far. And hurt that comes with living. None of us have perfect parents.”

Through the Family Resource Center, families can receive resources or counseling without having to go through the Juvenile Justice System, Matherson says. 

“There’s a plethora of services they offer that have nothing to do with incarceration. All kinds of social services, all kinds of legal services,” Matherson says. “Some medical services they have access to that a lot of people don’t know about and don’t take advantage of it because they just don’t know.”

Still, Matherson, like others, argues that SROs are needed in schools. 

“I think their presence there gives them an opportunity to build relationships and police with the community. These would not be men and women who would be strangers on the street. They know you, they recognize you, you know them and recognize them. Hopefully, your interactions will be positive so you can have a mutual respect for engagement with each other,” he says. 

Darrita Davis, another organizer through Freedom BLOC and The W.O.M.B (Way of Mind and Body), argues for more and better social services to get at the root of kids’ issues. 

“When I started talking to these young people, one of the young folks had lost her dad, and nobody knew that,” Davis says. “Her dad had been murdered in this war out here. Nobody knew that. So why is this child acting out? And she’s the oldest and she’s taking care of other siblings, and her mom is just lost because she has lost her husband. So this young lady has become the mother to her young siblings. 

“I think we need to get to the root of the kid’s issues, whether those are systemic or behavioral or generational,” Davis continued. 

Greene argues the role of the safety team members at the school (of which there are 3-4 at each building) should be enough. He says students’ lives and their emotional well-being should be valued over the perception of safety SROs bring. Additionally, he says the $600,000 a year spent on SROs could be better invested in civic engagement programs, curriculum, or additional resources for students. 

Greene agrees. Further, he says, the money APS spends on school resource officers could be invested in those additional resources for students — supporting their mental health, academic success and civic engagement. 

“We spend a lot of money on perceived safety,” he says. “And the people we’re perceiving ourselves safe from are Black people and poor people. And we’re hiring armed guards in every aspect of our lives, from schools to grocery stores, to protect the greater society from Black people, when what we need is money to invest in people, not institutions.”

The Family Resource Center is located on the second floor of the William P. Kannel Juvenile Court Center on 650 Dan Street. 

Noor Hindi covers equity and inclusion for The Devil Strip. Reach her at noor@thedevilstrip.com

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