116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids school district officials are looking to answer students’ calls to transform the system to support restorative justice rather than take punitive measures against students as they contemplate changes to the district’s school resource officer program.
After data from Iowa’s Department of Human Rights showed that Black students in the Cedar Rapids district are far more likely to have allegations of criminal wrongdoing made against them than are white students, Nicole Kooiker, deputy superintendent for the Cedar Rapids Community School District, told the school board Monday night that the district will update the program that currently assigns uniformed Cedar Rapids police officers to seven schools.
This does not mean, however, that the district will fully remove police officers from school buildings, Kooiker said, but the program will change before the start of the 2021-2022 school year after officials learn, listen and collect more data.
“We are owning the data alongside the Cedar Rapids Police Department and knowing we do need to make some improvements,” Kooiker said.
The school resource officer program was piloted in the Cedar Rapids district in January 2010. Now, seven officers are at Jefferson High, Kennedy High, Washington High, Metro High, Polk Alternative High and Roosevelt and McKinley middle schools.
Kooiker said there is one non-Caucasian officer of the seven. The two middle schools that have been added to the program have the highest population of Black students, according to a presentation Monday to the board.
State data showing the racial disparities in criminal allegations made against students is fueling the district’s re-examination of the program.
Black students made up 61.2 percent of the criminal allegations — including simple, serious and aggravated misdemeanors and felonies — in Cedar Rapids schools between 2015-2020. But according to the data, they make up only 19.1 percent of the district’s student population.
Meanwhile, white students are 60.4 percent of the student body in Cedar Rapids schools, but account for only a minority of the criminal allegations.
Black Student Unions at the schools worked with the district on a survey assessing students attitudes toward the officers and received 573 responses.
Wilsee Kollie, a rising senior at Kennedy High, told the school board the survey data reveals a “need to acknowledge and serve all students — with an emphasis on all students.”
Of those responding to the survey, 32 percent of students of color responded they had seen officers discipline white students differently than their peers of color, and 40 percent of Black students reported having seen disparities, compared with 19 percent of white students. Overall, 23 percent of students said they had seen racial disparities in how officers discipline students.
All students should be recognized, Kollie said, including the 40 percent of Black students who say they have witnessed a difference in how officers have disciplined students.
The survey also indicated 72 percent of students — 411 total — felt that school officers are needed. The other 154 students said they felt officers are not needed in schools.
Forty percent, or 211 students, said they had witnessed the officers effectively prevent violence in schools, while the rest responded they had not.
Kollie and Gentine Nzpyikorera, a Kennedy High rising junior, shared stories with the board that students had provided about their experiences with school resource officers in the survey. Some students recounted positive relationships with the officers, while others relayed experiences such as a seeing an officer’s “hand on their gun while confront(ing) a Black student over something really minor.”
Starting Tuesday, Kooiker said the district will gather input through surveys for parents, community members and staff. It will be sent to staff and parents and shared on the district website and social media for the community. Focus groups also will be at Roosevelt from 7 to 8 p.m. June 21 and at McKinley from 7 to 8 p.m. June 22, with child care provided.
School board Vice President David Tominsky said he appreciated the opportunity to work collaboratively to make changes to the program.
“This is a critical conversation for our entire community,” Tominsky said. “I appreciate us having it. There are some important things that need to come out of this.”
The Cedar Rapids Police Department plans a presentation for the July school board meeting, Kooiker said.
Community speakers during the meeting’s public comment session were split on their support for the program.
Jenny Schulz, a lawyer and executive director at Kids First Law Center, said officials should contemplate what issues they seek to resolve by having officers in schools. She said the district could hire restorative justice facilitators or more therapists, counselors and nurses instead.
“Conflict is not a crime, but when you have a police officer in a school, it’s more likely to make it a crime,” Schulz said.
Cedar Rapids resident Anthony Arrington said it is easy for people to discuss race when they are not subject to challenges because of their race. To address incidents where students misbehave in schools, such as falling asleep in class, Arrington said, officials need to ask underlying questions to find the cause.
“Take this money and allocate it the way it’s supposed to be — digging up the roots,” Arrington said. “Because when you take it at the roots, you will kill weeds.”
Kevin Wymore, a Cedar Rapids resident and Kennedy High alum, said district survey findings suggest officials should not entirely dismantle the program because a majority of students responded they feel it is needed.
“There ought to be lots and lots of public input because these data indicate, indeed, that there is, I think, ample support for school-based police in the Cedar Rapids schools,” Wymore said.
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