August 9, 2017
Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent, Ed Graff, reportedly had to be escorted to his car by in-house security officers late on August 8, at the tail end of a long and loudly contentious school board meeting.
The regularly scheduled meeting included the board’s vote on a new contract between the district and the Minneapolis police, worth over $1 million. The three-year contract, which the board approved 8-1, will pay for fourteen school resource officers, or SROs, to work in Minneapolis, mainly at the high school level. North Minneapolis board member, Kerry Jo Felder, voted against the contract, citing concerns over how district resources are being distributed to support the most marginalized students.
Felder also pushed to have the board vote on the contract right after the public comment period ended. This prompted lengthy discussion among board members, who seemed taxed not only by the anti-SRO crowd evident in the room, but also by attempts to hammer out what, exactly, they would be agreeing to by entering into a new contract with the Minneapolis police. Board members Nelson Inz and Ira Jourdain, for example, sought clarity around the depth of training the officers (and any potential substitutes) would receive, as well as who would be in charge of the SROs (the schools or the police department?).
Eventually, after two recesses, the board voted for a modified contract, calling for fourteen SROs, rather than the current sixteen. Other reforms, such as “soft” uniforms and a commitment to monthly progress reports were discussed and agreed to. Most significantly, the board–mostly at the insistence of Felder, Inz and student board member, Gabriel Spinks–pushed Superintendent Graff to further explore alternatives to SROs.
“Can we have a team that researches alternatives?” Spinks asked, before offering up what seemed like conflicted feelings on SROs. On the one hand, Spinks acknowledged, many students report feeling intimidated by the presence of SROs, who have historically worn a full police officer’s uniform, gun included. On the other hand, he said, eliminating these officers from the Minneapolis schools might increase tension “between minorities and the police.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum, board member Don Samuels elicited groans from the audience when he spoke of police officers as knowing “testosterone” and “teenage boys.” He also spoke emotionally about his time as a city council member, when he says members of the local Hmong community approached him about the bullying they were experiencing in Minneapolis parks and schools. This experience, combined with knowledge that Minneapolis principals apparently overwhelmingly support SROs, were factors in Samuels’ stated support for the continued use of such “resource” officers.
In this way, the meeting’s conversation among board members, the public and district administrators seemed fruitful. What are our values, many seemed to ask, and how can we best use our limited resources? What does it mean to have SROs in our schools, in light of the long-acknowledged school to prison pipeline? What would happen if the board voted the contract down, essentially ending the district’s use of SROs? Is there a replacement plan in place, primarily for the district’s high schools? Police would still be in our schools, someone pointed out, because school leaders would be pressed to call 911 in a crisis.
This back and forth was repeatedly drowned out, however, by a group of people in the audience who are vehemently opposed to SROs. The protesters described themselves as being affiliated with both the Black Liberation Project and a new group called “Stand Up.” Some faces were familiar–such as Tiffini Flynn Forslund, a frequent advocate for education reform who is currently running for a seat on the Minneapolis city council. The protests were matched with a petition, signed by 74 northside residents, who represent five Minneapolis schools and are in favor of SROs.
As the meeting progressed, some members of the protest group grew increasingly confrontational, lobbing threats at board members that they would soon be “voted out,” and accusing them of not caring about Black students. Finally, after the SRO vote was taken, one woman strode to the front of the dias where board members sit. Most of the board had left already, as the meeting was being moved due to continued interruptions, so only citywide representatives Kim Ellison and Rebecca Gagnon remained.
“You are trash. I hope you know that,” the woman told Ellison and Gagnon.
With that, the meeting’s live video stream was cut off, and the meeting reconvened on the fifth floor of the Davis center. Few, if any, media representatives followed the meeting upstairs, as I understand it (I was watching the video stream at home), and so no one realized that the disruptions continued–to the point where Superintendent Graff had to be escorted to his car.
Can Graff be held accountable for the sins of the past, when restorative justice initiatives were promised by district leadership but never really “implemented with fidelity”? (Look to former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s legacy for evidence of this.) Last night, Graff seemed eager to move headlong into embracing SROs (after a lengthy community engagement process, which reportedly resulted in broad support for their continued presence) while also promising to bring “integrity” and “intentionality” to their presence in the schools. Graff is a known proponent of “social-emotional learning,” and spoke about wanting to assess the “climate and culture” of each district school.
This ties into another key issue that members of the public raised at the meeting: the fate of Southwest High School administrator, Brian Nutter. Nutter has been reassigned to Davis Center headquarters as part of an administrative shake up at Southwest, reportedly due to an Office of Civil Rights complaint that was filed by a previous administrator. That complaint is said to focus on allegations of racial bias in the school’s “climate and culture,” as Graff might say.
At last night’s meeting, Nutter’s wife, Jada, spoke up on his behalf, explaining that he was away fulfilling his duties as a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard. Nutter said that she and her husband met while both were students at Minneapolis’s Roosevelt High School, and that they were “humbled and grateful” for the support they’ve received from the public, since Brian’s removal from Southwest was announced. This turn of events was “surprising” for Brian, his wife told the board, and came with “no community engagement,” leaving the school with “three unfulfilled administrative posts.”
If this is true–that no one from the Southwest community was involved in the decision to remove Nutter–than it would seem to fly in the face of an assertion Graff made at the August 8 board meeting. When the board’s discussion of SROs included talks of whether or not they should be in the schools at all, Graff had this to say (bold type added for emphasis):
I’m not focused on removals. I’m focused on listening to concerns. My goal is not to reduce SROs. My goal is to listen to concerns, around students not feeling safe, connected. I’d like to spend our energy in those areas. That’s the issue for me. Removing someone from the environment doesn’t address the climate.
Perhaps the situation at Southwest necessitated Nutter’s removal without any community engagement or a “listening of concerns.” If so, no one affiliated with Southwest High School seems to know what this is (including Nutter and his wife, apparently). If there is no clear explanation for why Nutter needed to go, leaving Southwest in a precarious position just weeks before the school year starts, then this is the kind of red flag Graff will most likely need to avoid on his way to building trust and confidence with district staff and families.
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