Activists call to cut policing in Orange schools, echoing national debate

Orlando Sentinel | by Cristóbal Reyes and Leslie Postal | September 7, 2020 Amid a national debate about police brutality, some Orange County activists want the county’s public schools to cut back on spending for school police officers and spend the money instead on counseling and mental health services for students. The Orange school district’s proposed budget, tentatively adopted in July and set for a final vote Tuesday, includes a $1.1 million hike for police services, much of that earmarked for school resource officers, often called SROs. The new money would pay for officers for three new campuses and cover increased expenses, but it would also allow the district to put a second police officer on five campuses — three middle schools, a K-8 school and an alternative school, according to a memo from district staff sent to school board members last month. The district then would have 256 SROs for 210 campuses, it said. “It seemed really alarming to us,” said Chris Furino organizer of Central Florida Jobs with Justice. “It’s pretty clear that some of the schools in OCPS are being over policed.” Activists from Furino’s group and a coalition of other social justice organizations plan to speak at Tuesday’s school board meeting — as many of them did at a board meeting in late July — urging a reduction, not an increase, in police spending Furino and others fear police on campuses lead to too many county students arrested for misbehaving, with problems better left to school deans and counselors ushering them instead into the juvenile justice system and creating the “school-to-prison pipeline.” They also note the trend disproportionately impacts Black youngsters. Last school year, for example, 52% of students arrested on Orange campuses were Black, though Black students comprise about 25% of the district’s enrollment, according to data from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office, which provides the majority of SROs to county public schools, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the activists’ demands to cut the school police budget. The local activists’ concerns echo conversations being had in school districts throughout the United States in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the heads of Minneapolis police in May, which has sparked a national debate about the role of law enforcement in daily life. Since then, in communities from Connecticut to Colorado to California, school districts havereconsidered, and even canceled,funding for law enforcement officers in schools. A Florida law passed after the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, however, requires every public school to have a police officer, armed security officer or “guardian” on campus. The Orange school board decided it would use police officers, whom members view as the better-trained and safer option. The district now has two officers at its high schools and one at most other campuses, which ismore than required by the 2018 law. “We’re not calling for getting rid of all SROs,” Furino said. “Just go down to the state minimum.” School leaders say the district has worked to reduce on-campus arrests in recent years and views both the district police department, and its partnerships with local law enforcement agencies who provide SROs, as an effort to maintain a “safe environment” on its campuses. But at the July meeting, several Orange school board members said they shared some of the activists’ concerns and asked for more information ahead of Tuesday’s vote. Board Chair Teresa Jacobs said SRO duties needed to be carefully defined. “They’re not disciplinary agents, and they should never act that way,” she said, adding that their role should be “defending and protecting our kids.” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, in a letter to the board Thursday said the district should spend less on police this year since the coronavirus pandemic has meant far fewer students are on campuses. About 70% of the district’s students opted for online options that allow them to study from home. Money should instead be earmarked for school counselors, psychologists and social workers, Smith wrote. “Exclusively focusing on SROs while failing to prioritize the critical role mental health professionals also play in overall school safety would be a mistake,” he wrote. David Caicedo, co-director of the Florida Student Power network, agreed. “At the end of the day, it comes down to having preventative measures,” said Caicedo, who spoke at the July meeting and plans to again Tuesday. “If schools had adequate counselors and social workers, and teachers were empowered to build closer relationships with students, you can’t say with certainty, but those are things that would help.” An ACLU of Florida report released Wednesday examined statewide school policing trends since the Parkland law passed and found the increasedpresence of SROs didn’t make schools safer. Instead, incidents that would normally be dealt with by school staff have been reported to police with greater frequency, leading to more arrests, said F. Chris Curran, who authored the report. “I think what we’re seeing is a choice to rely on something that at least in terms of optics is clearly related to school safety,” said Curran, associate professor at the University of Florida and co-director at its Education Policy Research Center. “But if we dig deeper, the evidence just doesn’t suggest it’s really the right solution.” He also noted that the SRO at Marjory Stoneman failed to stop that shooter, so he questioned why the state’s response was to “add more police in schools.” The additional money in the school district’s proposed budget would help pay for officers at three new schools and would allow the district to pay local law enforcement agencies, with whom it shares the cost of SROs, a greater share of the expenses in the coming year, the memo said. Officers are provided by nine different law enforcement agencies in the county but more than 60% come from the Sheriff’s Office, it said. Some of the SROs are not assigned to a campus but are used to fill in forofficers who are out sick or off, the memo said. The five schools slated to get an additional officer, the memo said, are Bridgewater, Meadowbrook and Robinswood middle schools, OCPS Academic Center for Excellence, which serves children in kindergarten through eighth grade, and Gateway School, which is an alternative center. In 2021, when the school district renegotiates its SRO contract, it may look to add provisions requiring that the officers — who are selected by their agencies, not the schools — meet certain requirements, the memo added. Those could include standards about not having prior instances of excessive use of force or racism. Two incidents in the last year have prompted scrutiny of local SROs. One was the case of 6-year-old Kaia Rolle, who’d had a tantrum at a charter school — a public school operated by its own board, not the school district — and was then arrested by an SRO from the Orlando Police Department. The other was an incident involving a Westridge Middle School SRO, who yanked a girl by the hair as he took her into custody.Both men have since been fired by their departments. Leroy Pernell, a law professor at Florida A&M University, said schools need options besides police to deal with day-to-day student behavioral problems. “They’re not educators. They’re not trained to see kids as an educational challenge,” he said. “They see kids as a societal crime challenge, and that’s devastating to a public education system. And it’s particularly devastating when it results in the rates of contacts between police and kids in schools, kids of color being three times that of everybody else.” Caicedo, of the Florida Student Power network, said that whatever the board decides Tuesday, he expects activists to continue to push the issue, likely next in Tallahassee. “This is a fight that we know that isn’t going to end on Sept. 8,” he said. “This is something that’s very important because literally lives are at stake.” Feature Photo: Activists on Tuesday will urge the Orange County School Board not to increase its budget for school resource officers. In this 2012 photo, Master Deputy Kevin Curry, the school resource officer, watches students return to their classroom after lunch at Evans High School. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel) (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda / Orlando Sentinel)
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