Memphis school board split over school policing deal

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As school districts across the country decide to sever ties with law enforcement, some local education officials are concerned about officers patrolling Memphis schools.

In a Tuesday night business meeting, the Shelby County School Board was split over a deal that the district would pay the county sheriff’s office $ 50,000 for the use of 36 resource officers in the schools. from Memphis.

The conversation in Memphis follows a national racial calculation, sparked by several high-profile police murders of blacks, and prompted some of the largest school systems in the United States – including those in Denver, Seattle, Portland and Minneapolis – to put end of partnerships with local police services.

This is also a growing body of evidence to suggest that school resource officers are fueling the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. A recent report from the Brookings Institute found that school police criminalize adolescent behavior. For example, law enforcement can turn the cutting class into an accusation of truancy and the graffiti on the bathroom walls into an accusation of vandalism.

Involving school resource managers can hurt children of color the most: Data from the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights found these officials are more than twice as likely to dismiss students blacks for prosecution than their white peers.

These findings led nearby Frayser Community Schools to dramatically reduce the number of law enforcement officers in their schools. This Memphis charter school network is committed to taking a more holistic approach to discipline this school year.

In 2019, Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray offered to create his own district police force, called a “peace force,” to replace sheriff’s deputies. At the time, Ray said he believed Shelby County schools would be able to more effectively monitor agent behavior if they reported directly to the district. School board members disagreed, saying they weren’t sure the students would actually be treated any better.

Last month, the district said 125 armed officers, including 45 Shelby County sheriff’s deputies, patrol its schools. These officers have all received enhanced training on recognizing precursors to violence, as well as training in non-violence, crisis prevention and gang reduction, according to the district.

Memphis school board member William Orgel was the only board member on Tuesday to say he supported the program.

“Things don’t always go well, but I appreciate that they put their lives on the line and take care of our students, in particular, and keep them safe,” he said.

Shelby County schools have also implemented strategies to reduce negative encounters between police and students. For example, expanding its so-called ReSET rooms, where students can calm down with a supportive adult after emotional or tense moments; this effort resulted in lower suspension rates in the 2019-2020 school year, compared to the previous year. These rates fell further last year, when most Memphis students learned from a distance.

Cardell Orrin, executive director of education advocacy organization Stand for Children Tennessee, said the latest memorandum of understanding between the district and the sheriff’s office was a step in the wrong direction.

“Basically my belief is that we don’t need to enforce the law in schools,” no matter how nice or well-trained the officers are, he said.

Orrin said money meant to pay officers at Memphis schools should be redirected to mental health resources and other supports in school settings.

Students, families and school advocates in Shelby County, where the majority of the district’s more than 110,000 students are children of color, have raised similar concerns. Hundreds of community members wrote letters demanding that the district end its contract with the sheriff’s office.

Yet the drafted MoU does not seem to reflect these comments.

“When I say our inboxes are full, there is clearly a problem,” said Sheleah Harris, board member. “And I don’t hear a solution to the problem.”

While board member Stephanie Love recognizes the role of school resource officers in keeping schools safe, she said she also believes the district needs to investigate complaints and at least determine if there are any changes. had to be brought.

“For us to support this as is, after spending time with all these students, I think it would be a disservice and I would tell our students that we have heard you but are not listening to you,” he said. she declared.

The board will discuss the MoU again at its meeting next week.


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