116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
When Cedar Rapids introduced school resource officers more than a decade ago, it was not in response to any particular event or threat. Unlike other districts that have brought in cops following shootings, Cedar Rapids school officials just thought it was a good idea back in 2010 and the police department agreed.
Given the origin of the program, we worry the police mission in local schools has been poorly defined. Are they there to prevent a tragedy, or to patrol typical teenage behavior? In Cedar Rapids schools, it’s most often the latter, and Black students are overwhelmingly the targets.
Charges against Black students increased, even during the pandemic-shortened school year, while those against white students declined.
Black students make up less than 20 percent of the district’s enrollment but accounted for more than 60 percent of criminal allegations during a five-year period analyzed by Iowa Department of Human Rights, The Gazette’s Grace King reported last week.
In 2019-2020, the most recent school year under review, Black students were more than six times as likely to face legal action than their white peers. Charges against Black students increased, even during the pandemic-shortened school year, while those against white students declined.
The vast majority of charges are initiated by school-based officers, not by calls to police. Police are supposed to collaborate with school administrators but it’s ultimately the officers’ discretion whether to file a complaint.
Racially disproportionate outcomes in law enforcement are not necessarily evidence of biased policing, but they demand scrutiny at the very least. School officials say their research shows Black students commit crimes at a similar rate to white students.
Additionally, the largest share of charges at schools are for public order violations, which are much more subjective and discretionary than drugs and violence.
Organizers with local Black Student Unions this week shared student survey data about police in schools. It showed most students favor keeping the officers, but also that most students had never seen officers prevent violence.
The district’s current 2-year, $2 million contract with the Cedar Rapids Police Department runs through the end of the school year. School officials are considering changes to the arrangement, to include diversion programs, more training for officers and better communication with administrators.
Those sound like reasonable reforms, but we challenge the district to think hard about what the role of police in schools should be. Blanketing out Black youth with disorderly conduct allegations should not be part of the job description.
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