116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
After almost 12 years in place, Cedar Rapids school officials think now is the time to finally start conducting oversight over the police they pay to work in schools.
The Cedar Rapids School Board last week approved changes to its arrangement with the city for supplying school resource officers. District leaders call it a “reset” of the program that has been in place since 2010, and they vow to start scrutinizing its outcomes.
After a few months of discussion over the issue, we still do not have a clear answer to this simple question: What, exactly, is the job of police officers in public schools? Ask seven school board members and you might get seven different answers.
Government schools should not be teaching students to mindlessly trust government agents. They should teach the younger generation to have a healthy skepticism of authority.
Many districts nationally have instituted policing programs following school shootings or other incidents. Not so in Cedar Rapids. A police pilot program was originally introduced to schools with no public explanation about what the officers’ role would be.
When Cedar Rapids’ first school resource officer contract was approved in 2010, it was on the board’s consent agenda, meaning it was approved as part of a package of supposedly unremarkable measures and given no discussion.
Securing buildings, breaking up fights, monitoring social media, counseling students, surveilling gang activity, tracking guns and confiscating drugs all have been mentioned as school resource officers’ responsibilities. It most often comes back to the all-important “building positive relationships” with students.
What they call relationship building might just be intelligence gathering. Cops establish rapport with civilians so that civilians are more comfortable reporting crime and cooperating with investigations. If police only ever pursued serious offenses, it wouldn’t be a problem.
But we know that’s not the case. We know that police also enforce against drugs, nuisances and victimless crime. Situations that used to be dealt with by school administrators now sometimes result in criminal charges.
Black students in Cedar Rapids were six times as likely to be accused of a crime in school as white students, according to five years of data reviewed by the Iowa Department of Human Rights. Iowa is one of the 10 worst states in the nation for disproportionately arresting Black kids in schools, according to an ACLU report this year.
The contract amendments recently approved by the Cedar Rapids School Board are a good start at narrowing school resource officers’ focus.
Police have been removed from their full-time assignments at two middle schools. The updated agreement places restrictions on formal police interviews with students and limits investigations of incidents occurring outside school. It retains language from the previous agreement specifying that police should not enforce school discipline.
Maybe the most important shift is that the district will start regularly reporting figures about police activity in schools with goals of reducing arrests and erasing the racial disparity. It is outrageous that this was not already happening, but better late than never. Of course, it will only matter if the district does something about it.
“As we get the data from month to month we need to review the data and we have to be ready to act if necessary. … If it comes to canceling the contract with the city, we should do that if the data doesn’t support that the changes we’ve made are making a difference. It’s unconscionable what’s going on with some of our students,” board member Dexter Merschbrock said at the last meeting.
The district’s new vision for police is not all good. Administrators are putting a renewed emphasis on police delivering “civic education.” Cops are directed to teach students about “emotional learning” and “a basic understanding of laws”
Maybe police — who are allowed to lie to us during questioning, who get special protection through qualified immunity when they violate our rights, who pervert the democratic process through their powerful lobbies — shouldn’t be the ones teaching our young people about the law.
If police have a job to do in school, it ought to be laser-focused on safety, not on civic education. Government schools should not be teaching students to mindlessly trust government agents. They should teach the younger generation to have a healthy skepticism of authority.
As ACLU of Iowa director Mark Stringer wrote in a recent guest column for The Gazette, “A police officer is not a friend.”
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