In June of last year, the Rochester City Council voted to remove police officers from schools in the Rochester City School District. The move was part of a budget vote that also included a four percent cut to the Rochester police budget and the diversion of funds from police to recreation and youth services.
The vote brought us one step closer to schools that don’t make Black and Brown students feel like suspects in their own classrooms. But now, after students have fully returned to in-person learning, there is momentum to put police back in Rochester’s public schools. Last month, a group of unions representing school employees sent a letter to the Rochester City School District asking for school resource officers to return.
Along with allies, we urged the school district to resist moving backwards. Rochester School Superintendent Lesli Myers-Small agreed with us, pushing back on the unions’ demands, saying in part “We believe it is possible to create and sustain a healthy school culture without exclusionary discipline and police tactics.”
But the knee-jerk response to invest in police instead of kids is happening all over the state, as schools struggle to return to “normal” without proper supports for kids.
Every dollar we spend on police officers is a dollar that doesn’t go to meeting one of these needs.
Because of the pandemic, students spent 18 months learning remotely, physically cut off from their classmates, teachers, and the support staff and resources that would normally be there to help them. Many of them experienced serious trauma as their families struggled to make ends meet in the midst of a historic economic crisis. That crisis was coupled with a deadly pandemic that has killed hundreds of people in Monroe County and thousands across the state.
Now, students are back at schools with large class sizes, and a dearth of support services, a bus driver shortage, and a lack of hot lunches for students – many of whom rely on school lunch programs to eat. Given all this, it is not surprising that there have been cases of students acting out and even violent incidents at Rochester schools.
Police are the last thing kids need in this moment. They don’t help kids learn, eat, stay healthy, or solve conflict. They don’t support kids with disabilities to complete their work or English Language Learners to stay in school. Every dollar we spend on police officers is a dollar that doesn’t go to meeting one of these needs.
We all want safe schools. But we have to get to the root causes of what makes students engage in harmful behavior so we can address it and prevent it from happening in the future. We have to invest in real solutions rather than relying on police to come in, slap handcuffs on students, and then pretend that solves the problem.
Fortunately, we not only know what schools need to be safe, we have the money to provide it. Thanks to federal funding in the relief bill passed earlier this year, RCSD received $197 million to invest in students’ education over the next three years.
That money should be harnessed to work with local violence interrupters and community-based organizations that can help prevent conflicts from escalating and identify drivers of violence. We should hire more counselors, clinical mental health providers, social workers, and school nurses who can help students struggling with the return to in-person learning.
Treating kids like criminals, and potentially saddling them with a lifelong criminal record does nothing to actually fix the problems that lead to conflict in the first place. A return to the use of police as the solution to school safety will also undoubtedly hurt Black students and those with disabilities the most.
Our students deserve so much more and there’s no reason we can’t give them what they need.