After years of beefing up police presence in schools, members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board say they’re quietly looking into whether that presence could be doing more harm than good.
They say they're listening to people like 19-year-old Cameron Parker, who says the sights and sounds of police tear-gassing protesters on the streets of uptown Charlotte led him to call for removing police from public schools.
But Parker says even before he graduated from Myers Park High in 2019, school resource officers made him uneasy.
"It was always a weird thing to me, because I never understood the need for cops to be on school grounds, almost as like a presence, just walking around the school with harmful weapons," he said recently.
Parker and a friend founded a group they call the Charlotte Liberation Party to lead and participate in protests against racism and police brutality. They’re joining people across the nation calling for an end to police presence in schools.
Parker notes that in addition to officers with guns and the power to arrest students, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has unarmed security guards. Parker says they can handle most school incidents "and all they have is a blue shirt and a walkie-talkie."
The Pendulum Swings
Just a few weeks ago, that would have sounded like crazy talk in Charlotte.
In 2018, a mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, terrified the nation. Months later, one student fatally shot another at Butler High in Matthews. Against that backdrop CMS added five officers – there are now 70 stationed in all middle and high schools.
CMS has its own police force, with a $15 million budget this year, and contracts with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police and suburban departments to expand the number of school resource officers, known as SROs.
In the past year the district also started doing random bag searches and bought a police dog trained to sniff out guns.
But the board rejected a 2019 proposal to add 25 officers as a first step toward putting armed officers in elementary schools. Board Chair Elyse Dashew says the board decided that wasn’t the best way to spend limited money.
"I think for years we’ve been paying close attention to SROs, and, you know, having conversations about the benefits they bring and the challenges they bring," Dashew said. "The events of the last few weeks have brought all that up again. So there’s a lot of conversation, a lot of homework being done. "
At this point there’s no timetable for action. No board members are calling to eliminate the school resource officer program. But several say they’re at least willing to listen to those who want to shift those duties to employees who don’t carry guns and make arrests.
Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey is one of several members asking principals and teachers about the role of resource officers.
"They don’t just stand around with their hands on their hip, with a gun in their pocket," she said. "They do other stuff. I want to know what is it they do."
Guns In Schools
While gunfire in schools is rare, it’s not uncommon for CMS students to be caught with guns. CMS consistently leads the state for guns on school grounds: Last year 22 gun incidents were reported at 13 schools. Usually the guns are confiscated without incident – and CMS officials have credited resource officers and school staff with having the kind of relationships where students will tell them if a classmate is packing a weapon.
CMS board member Ruby Jones, a retired educator, says that safety factor is why she’s not interested in removing police officers.
"I think people who suggest that we not have them are just living in la-la land," she said. "I feel much better about any of my grandkids or all children being in a school in this day and age with a well-trained officer there."
Not Just In Charlotte
Variations on this debate are playing out across the country – this time against the backdrop of George Floyd dying on a Minneapolis street with a police officer’s knee on his neck. Weeks of protests and discussions have highlighted the fact that police may be seen as a symbol of safety in white communities -- and as a threat in communities of color.
WUNC, a public radio station based in Chapel Hill, recently aired a "State of Things" panel on school resources officers, bringing together activists and state officials.
"My community has always held a justified distrust of government officials and people with positions of authority," said Aissa Dearing, a student activist and 2020 graduate of Durham public schools. "So seeing an officer in uniform, holding his holster in the elementary school hallway, it doesn’t make a school climate feel safe for me."
Dearing said it’s not just the fear of police violence that troubles her, but the presence of officers who can arrest students for things like fights and marijuana possession – offenses that she contends could be handled better without police.
"And of course I’m terrified of a school shooting," she said. "I mean, I grew up practicing lockdowns at school. And school resource officers honestly don’t make me feel any safer."
The head of the North Carolina Task Force for Safer Schools told WUNC the answer is improving the officer program, not ending it. William Lassiter of the Department of Public Safety says resource officers are now getting better training in recognizing bias and avoiding arrests that can stunt a student’s future.
"I think the debate that’s occurring across the state and across the country is, are you going to arm teachers or are you going to arm a law enforcement officer in schools?" Lassiter said. "And my preference has always been that we need to have a trained law enforcement officer be in that role."
Back in Charlotte, school board members say they’re considering the pros and cons of police in schools. But they’re also wrapping up a 2020 budget that includes the 70 school resource officers. They’re also awaiting this week’s announcement from the governor about how to reopen schools amid a persistent pandemic.
"Right now, as we try to prioritize things, I think No. 1 right now is reopening schools," said board member Lenora Shipp.
The pandemic has also created new challenges for resource officers. Since schools closed in March, they've been deployed to provide security at mobile meal sites, protect the empty schools and investigate incidents on CMS property – including recent racist graffiti on school rocks.
Also this week, Superintendent Earnest Winston and board chair Dashew will attend a town hall on racism for CMS students and recent graduates, hosted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council.
Parker, the activist and Myers Park graduate, says he’ll be there to talk about removing resource officers.
"Because really I just want the minorities, and especially the black kids, to feel safe," he says.
That’s a mission the superintendent and board say ranks very high on the priority list, no matter where they land on police in schools.
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