116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Black students in the Cedar Rapids district are far more likely to have allegations of criminal wrongdoing made against them than are white students — and the disparity has been worsening, according to newly available data from Iowa’s Department of Human Rights.
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, while making up only 19.1 percent of the district’s student population, according to the data.
White students are 60.4 percent of the student body in Cedar Rapids schools, but account for only a minority of the criminal allegations.
Assault causing bodily injury, theft, criminal mischief, reckless use of fire or explosives, harassment, possession of a controlled substance, sexual abuse and robbery are examples of serious misdemeanors, aggravated misdemeanors or felony arrests over the past three years.
“We’re definitely disappointed and actually hurt,” said Nicole Kooiker, deputy superintendent for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. “This data is alarming, and we need to acknowledge that. I think what’s critical is that we’re listening and willing to make whatever changes we need to make sure we’re not perpetuating harm to students.”
That alarming data is fueling impetus for the district to reexamine the school resource officer program that puts uniformed police officers inside seven Cedar Rapids schools. The vast majority of the allegations against students arise from the school-based officers.
The state Department of Human Rights data — obtained by The Gazette — is being shared with school board members in a presentation by students and district officials at 5 p.m. Monday during the regular school board meeting.
According to the state data about the district, Black students ran 6.24 times the risk of having a complaint made against them than white students during the 2019-20 academic year. Overall, 69 percent of complaints were made against Black students compared with 29 percent made against white students during that school year.
Complaints against Black students increased 50 percent compared with white students, which decreased by 6.1 percent between the 2015-16 and 2019-20 school years, the figures show. Overall complaints in the schools increased 22.9 percent over a five-year period.
The district is considering how the school officers could potentially be used differently, or what other supports schools would need if they were removed altogether.
“Our high schools aren’t going to look the same (next year),” Kooiker said. “It’s not even an option. The data tells us it’s not an option. I don’t need any more data metrics to know the system isn’t currently working.”
Adding police to schools
The school resource officer program was piloted in the Cedar Rapids district in January 2010 at Jefferson High School. A year later, it was expanded to Kennedy and Washington high schools.
Today, school resource officers are at Jefferson High, Kennedy High, Washington High, Metro, Polk Alternative High and Roosevelt and McKinley middle schools.
Kooiker said there was no specific reason the officers initially were added to the district, and there is “no good answer” about why they were later added to only two of the middle schools.
The district is considering removing school resource officers from middle schools next year or rotating them between the six Cedar Rapids middle schools.
“Next year, the plan is not to just have a (school resource officer) at Roosevelt and McKinley for sure,” Kooiker said.
Kooiker said the district is prepared to take “serious action” this summer. “We know kids will not come back through the doors of our schools with this looking the same,” she said.
Nearly $2 million program
The district has an agreement for the school resource officer program with the city of Cedar Rapids. The last contract was approved April 27, 2020, by the school board.
It funds seven police officer positions to the Cedar Rapids district, a cost of $1,905,198 over the two-year contract period ending June 30, 2022. The contract allows either the school district or police department to provide a 30-day written notice to end the agreement.
"All options are on the table,“ Kooiker said.
The contract states that the school district will be provided monthly data from the school resource officer program. But this has not been happening since the inception of the program at Cedar Rapids schools, an “oversight” by both the district and the police department, Kooiker said.
The data the schools do receive is combined with information from the College Community School District and Kirkwood Community Colleges, which also use the school resource officer program through the Cedar Rapids Police Department.
Black Lives Matter draws attention
The latest conversation about school resource officers began with Kennedy High students Rahma and Raafa Elsheikh, who asked for removal of the officers in Black Lives Matter demands to the school board in July 2020.
While the Elsheikh sisters graduated this year, the fight to remove school resource officers is being picked up by other students including Wilsee Kollie, 17, who will be a senior this fall at Kennedy High. She will be one of a few students to present to the school board Monday, with the support of district officials. Kollie said she was not surprised by the data from the state Department of Human Rights.
“We saw this coming,” she said. “We know people who were targeted by (school resource officers), specifically Black students.”
Kollie said her goal is to see removal of the officers.
“We should not be trying to build relationships” with the school resource officers, she said. “Some students have been traumatized by the police, especially with seeing the deaths of our brothers and sisters on TV and social media.”
Kollie said she wants to see the money spent on mental health professionals and educators instead.
Kooiker, the deputy superintendent, said that “there should always be at least one go-to adult within a building, whether that’s a cook, secretary, para educator, teacher or principal, that every kid has a close connection to.”
Do school officers prevent violence?
Before the end of this school year, at the urging of students, the district sent a survey to students about the program. It asked questions including: Do you feel school resource officers are needed in our schools? Have you witnessed a difference in how school resource officers discipline students of color versus white students? Have you witnessed school resource officers effectively prevent violence in schools?
Students were able to rate how safe and welcomed they feel around the officers and share any of their experiences.
The data collected by this survey was not available to The Gazette, but will be shared Monday with the school board. Kooiker said she was surprised and disappointed by the data collected from the surveys.
“We’re acknowledging as a district that we need to make some serious changes to how we operate in schools with our (school resource officer) program,” she said. “What that looks like, I’m not sure. But there’s definitely alarming data we’re acknowledging.”
Kooiker said the district’s discipline data — specifically suspensions — are disproportionate as well.
“We need to dig into our practices as an educational system. We want to make sure we provide systems of support that do not perpetuate more harm,” Kooiker said.
A ’failed experiment’
Officers with the Cedar Rapids Police Department say removing school resource officers would be a mistake.
Capt. Brent Long, who oversees the community services division, including school resource officers, said the school officers are about more than law enforcement — they become friends with the students.
School resource officers can be informal counselors, step into classrooms for quick lessons in driver’s education, government and law classes and provide law enforcement and safety at school.
School resource officers also operate a diversion program. A student who is pushing and shoving another student in the hallway might be tasked with writing a paper and turning that in to the officer instead of being charged, Long said.
In 2019, the diversion program was expanded beyond disorderly conduct and now includes criminal mischief, trespassing, small amounts of marijuana, vape pens and alcohol.
School resource officers also refer students to mental health counselors or community resources such as the Area Substance Abuse Council or food pantries.
Lt. Matt Wells, who oversees school resource officers at Jefferson High, Roosevelt Middle School, College Community and Kirkwood, said officers aren’t there to arrest students.
“If there’s a fight in the lunch room, there’s a fight in the lunchroom, and whoever participates is going to get charged with disorderly conduct,” he said.
Veronica Fowler, communications director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said tracking school resource officer data can “demonstrate that despite good intentions, school resource officers have caused incredible harm to some students, especially students of color.”
Fowler said while police departments may tout the good relationships the officers build with students, “it’s not a healthy relationship for these students to be having.”
School resource officers “escalate” situations that could otherwise be resolved by teachers, school counselors or mental health professionals, Fowler said.
"Police can be helpful, but police are not your friend,“ Fowler said. ”Their job is to keep the peace and arrest people. It’s one reason globally we are asking we re-imagine public safety.“
School officers are a “failed experiment,” Fowler said.
“They were born out of concern over school shootings, but there’s no indication school resource officers can reduce the likelihood of a mass shooting,” Fowler said. “Instead, what we do know can help is mental health resources.”
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