The Potluck

Half of Minneapolis Public Schools’ new safety team has police, corrections or security experience

By: - October 16, 2020 9:07 am

(Photo: Pexels)

After the police killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day, Minneapolis Public Schools abruptly canceled a contract with the city’s police department to provide officers in schools.

The district has been quickly trying to build its own team of “public safety support specialists” in the absence of police, but advocates say the process has been rushed and flawed, and will not lead to a healthier school environment. More than half of the 13 specialists hired have experience in security, corrections or law enforcement, according to district records.

Kenneth Eban, an advocate for removing Minneapolis police from schools, said the school district has put a new face on a longstanding issue. “The overarching problem is the surveillance and policing culture that we have for Black and brown students and Indigenous students in Minneapolis Public Schools.”

Minneapolis Public Schools are relatively safe, according to federal data. In 2017, the district reported roughly five fights per 100 students throughout the academic year, slightly more than most of the state’s other large school systems, and virtually no robberies or incidents of students possessing guns or explosives. The vast majority of Minneapolis students say they feel safe at school, according to a 2019 survey.

The unanimous vote to cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department was a disappointment for some students and educators who said the officers served as mentors. But it was a win for student activists who had pushed for the change for years. Schools with police are more likely to refer students to law enforcement for non-violent behavior, and students of color are disproportionately arrested.

Supporters lauded the move as a chance to reimagine school safety and discipline in Minneapolis, but little information is available so far about the district’s plans. The district has yet to give a comprehensive update on its revamped safety strategy.

Minneapolis Public Schools did not respond to an interview request. 

The district told national education news outlet The 74 that the newly hired specialists will play a role in school security, de-escalate conflicts and build relationships with students. Their training, which started in late September, “will continue to clarify the focus for these staff is not behavior enforcement” but instead connecting students and staff to resources, like counseling, Minneapolis Public Schools told The 74.

After the district was criticized this summer for a job posting that listed a law enforcement background as a requirement — which the district said was included by mistake — The 74 reported that more than half the 24 finalists for the jobs had experience as police officers, security guards or corrections officials, alarming advocates and even some job applicants.

According to records provided by the district to the Reformer, four of the 13 specialists have experience in corrections or security alone, and three have experience both in corrections or law enforcement and in the school district. Another five have worked in the district’s student behavioral or mental health programs, and one employee’s experience is described as “working with adolescent behaviors.” Their salaries range from $68,695 to $81,657.

Eban, the advocate, and Shaun Laden, a leader of the Minneapolis teachers union, said the hiring process was tarnished from the beginning. The initial job posting may have deterred quality applicants who didn’t have law enforcement experience, limiting the pool of candidates, they said.

“I thought the process should have started over,” Eban said. “Especially since we (started) with distance learning in Minneapolis Public Schools, I didn’t see the rush.”

Laden said he wishes the district would slow down and seek more input from staff, students and families. There’s a “trust gap” in Minneapolis schools, he said, and community members have a hard time buying into significant decisions — like hiring these new specialists — when they feel left out of the planning process.

Still, Laden said he is glad that half the specialists have experience working with students in Minneapolis. Going forward, ensuring there are plans in place to assess the new positions and reevaluate as necessary will be critical, he said.

The employee backgrounds provided by the district don’t give a complete picture of who the new specialists are, Eban said, but he was disappointed that many of them have experience in behavior modification — ranging from work in schools to juvenile corrections — when the district has said the employees won’t be involved in behavior enforcement.

Eban and Laden said everybody has the same mission: keeping students safe from outside bad actors, and the occasional incident inside school buildings. But determining how to do that is no easy task.

Eban would like to see Minneapolis Public Schools take what he called an “imaginative” approach to addressing security and climate at all levels, from how teachers perceive and address student behavior in the classroom — especially for students of color — to how the district defines safety.

But the meaning of safety is both expansive and elusive. That means keeping students safe from violence, he said — and it also means keeping Black and brown students safe from the kinds of unjust treatment that led the district to remove Minneapolis Police officers in the first place.

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a data reporter with the Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.