116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A revised agreement between Cedar Rapids schools and the city for police officers in schools — scheduled to be voted on Monday by the school board — could remove full-time officers from middle schools, have officers wear a “soft uniform” to be less intimidating and compel officers to seek diversion options for first offenses where possible.
The school district and police department have been working to revise the current agreement to make 13 recommended changes, with the goal of reducing arrests and charges against all students by half or more, and of bringing a 50 percent or greater reduction in the disproportionality of arrests of Black students. The agreement would need to be approved by both the school board and the Cedar Rapids City Council before the changes begin.
The Cedar Rapids Community School District has been examining the school resource officer program for the past few months. Earlier this year, the Iowa Department of Human Rights released data showing racial disparities in arrests of Cedar Rapids students in schools.
When students are removed from class when they misbehave — through arrest, suspension, expulsion or seclusion and restraint — they are more likely to drop out and “find other ways to survive,” Cedar Rapids schools Superintendent Noreen Bush said, including engaging in illegal activity.
“The more a student experiences suspension, the more they’re removed from school, the more detached they are, and there’s a greater likelihood they would continue to have those kinds of experiences in society,” Bush said.
While students misbehave at roughly the same rates across racial groups, Black students are six times at risk of white students for criminal complaints in Cedar Rapids schools. Black students account for over half of arrests while making about 19 percent of the student body, according to the district.
The local data aligns with national data that shows students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended, expelled or arrested, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office.
“People are saying Black kids behave worse” than white students, said Jenny Schulz, executive director and founder of Kids First Law Center in Cedar Rapids. “For us to believe that, we would have to believe that Cedar Rapids is so totally unique that children in our city behave completely differently than children in any other similar-sized city in America.”
Kids First Law Center has seven restorative practitioners in Cedar Rapids schools, which costs the district about $15,000 each. The practitioners build relationships with students and work to reduce conflict. When conflict does arise, they work with students and teachers to find amicable agreements.
Cedar Rapids educators are working on changing their mindset from punitive to a proactive approach of restorative and trauma-informed care practices, Bush said. Trauma-informed care looks at the whole student and seeks to understand what’s behind the behavior instead of dealing just with the immediate misbehavior, Bush said.
“It’s a shift of a question … Instead of asking ‘What’s wrong with you?’ You ask, ‘What’s happened to you?’’’ Bush said. “It’s establishing positive relationships first, understanding who people are and their needs, and giving them structural supports.”
A total of 3,251 students — about 19 percent — were suspended in Cedar Rapids schools in 2020, according to data from the Iowa Department of Education. Of those students, 1,269 were Black; 1,317 were white; 2,739 were low socio-economic status; and 1,133 were students with disabilities.
Less than 3 percent of students in Cedar Rapids schools were arrested by school resource officers — police — over a four-year period. Between 2017-2021, there were 678 total student arrests by school resource officers with 460 different individuals arrested, according to the district.
The number of students suspended or arrested in schools has been increasing nationally since the 1970s. Fewer than 4 percent of students were suspended in 1973, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and punishing students by removing them from school was unusual.
In the 1990s, however, more schools began adopting zero-tolerance policies, fueled by the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandated a yearlong out-of-school suspension for any student caught with a weapon at school.
The suspension rate for all students in the United States has nearly doubled since the 1970s, and increased even more for Black and Hispanic students, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
From 1997 to 2007, the number of school resource officers nationally increased by nearly a third, according to the Justice Policy Institute. More schools began relying on police in schools to prevent mass shootings in the wake of the one at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.
Crowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers and insufficient funding for school counselors, special education services and even textbooks can fuel problems and start students down a so-called “school to prison pipeline,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Yet schools can provide an opportunity to teach students how to better manage their emotions, make better choices when they’re angry, solve problems, collaborate, listen and understand each other, Schulz said.
Practicing trauma-informed care can help educators better understand why their students behave the way they do and what help they need, Bush said.
“Think about the children who struggle with reading or math,” Bush said. “We provide them additional teaching, support or different ways to learn. Behavior is the same way. If what we’re doing isn’t working, how do we teach and support them so they can feel safe in their environment?”
Rethinking school officers
Before this school year, city police officers had operated at Jefferson, Kennedy, Washington and Metro high schools, the Polk Alternative Education Center and the McKinley STEAM Academy and Roosevelt Middle School. However, officers were removed from the two middle schools before the start of the academic year while the future of the program is being debated.
Cedar Rapids schools need to make adjustments to the program based on their data, Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said during a school board meeting last month, which means keeping students in school and not suspending or arresting students whenever possible.
If students do not feel safe and have a sense of belonging, academic gaps will continue because their focus is not going to be on learning, Kooiker said.
“When we’re arresting students for poor choices who have had traumatic experiences and not necessarily teaching those behaviors or giving opportunities for school consequences or potentially diversion or the first time offense we’re arresting, that isn’t the way we want to respond to students in a restorative environment. That doesn’t create equity and access,” Kooiker said.
The Cedar Rapids Police Department does not believe its school resource officers contribute to a school-to-prison pipeline, it said in an email to The Gazette. The majority of students in Cedar Rapids schools with a school resource officer have never had a complaint or arrest submitted to juvenile court services. Over a four-year period, over 96 percent of Black students and 99 percent of white students were never arrested by a school officer.
The department “acknowledges there is disparity with arrests, however the arrests are dictated by the behavior and are conducted in consultation with school administrators,” Police Chief Wayne Jerman said during a July 12 school board meeting. “Many arrests are also the result of victims wanting charges filed, which are considered non-discretionary arrests. With that said, we are committed to working with the school district to keep our schools safe for all students and improving our school resource officer program.”
All Cedar Rapids police officers receive training in implicit bias, diversity, mental health and de-escalation tactics. School resource officers also are required to complete an additional 40 hours of training with the National Association of School Resource Officers.
The department began a program in 2006 to divert students from getting arrested. Over a four-year period, school resource officers reported 279 incidents of disorderly conduct — which could include using profane language, fighting or a physical altercation. Of those instances, school resource officers offered about 40 opportunities for students to divert from being arrested. About 20 of those students were white and 19 were Black.
The diversion program requires students to write a paper for the school resource officer in lieu of a formal complaint or arrest.
The diversion program was expanded in 2020 to include assault, criminal mischief, theft, possession of alcohol or tobacco, vaping and carrying weapons.
Okpara Rice, chief executive officer of Tanager Place in Cedar Rapids, said the way student behavior is addressed in schools is a community issue.
Tanager Place is a children’s human services agency with programs that focus on prevention, treatment and outreach for more than 4,000 children a year primarily in Linn and Johnson counties. Its school based program provides therapists to Cedar Rapids schools for under $10,000 per therapist.
“We have to be honest about where our systems have failed and where we can improve,” Rice said.
Disparity in discipline stems from unconscious bias, Rice said. Students who are arrested or suspended are out of school more, missing assignments and “get tagged as problem students.”
“That follows them, and this is how insidious the system is,” Rice said.
While Rice is unsure whether he believes school resource officers should be removed from schools, he said it’s important to listen to students “chiming in about what they think.”
The National Association of School Resource Officers estimates there are between 14,000 and 20,000 school resource officers in the United States. The association estimates about 20 percent of all U.S. K-12 schools — public and private --- use school resource officers.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa estimated there were 150 school resource officers statewide as of March. This is three times the number of social workers and four times the number of psychologists in Iowa schools, according to the ACLU.
Des Moines Public Schools — Iowa’s largest school district — ended its relationship with school resource officers there this year because the program disproportionately impacted students of color.
The Ames Community School District is considering ending its school resource officer program after the 2021-22 school year.
The Iowa City Community School District has never had school resource officers and currently has no plans to.
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