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Regional News

Organizers Want Western Mass. Schools To Rethink Their Relationship With Police

School will look very different in September than it did last year. There will be more distance between students, masks on every face — and in some schools across the country, fewer police in the hallways. 

At a recent protest in Springfield, Massachusetts, high school students demanded their district end its long-term relationship with the police department. 

“Get the police out of our schools now!” shouted Richard Parris Scott, an organizer of the protest. He graduated last month from the city’s High School of Commerce. 

“There is no reason why an armed officer with a gun, a Taser, a baton and cuffs is walking around a high school cafeteria like he owns the place, and no authority in the school itself can say anything about it,” Scott said.

School officers were charged with assault in two incidents in Springfield in 2018 and 2019, one of which was caught on video at the High School of Commerce, and the other at the city’s Kiley Middle School.

But students and educators say their demand is not only about excessive force and police intimidation. It’s also about the more than $1 million the city of Springfield spends every year to keep cops in schools.

Jaqueline Ferguson, a special education teacher at Springfield’s John F. Kennedy Middle School, said those funds could be better spent.

“Therapists, behavior specialists, teachers — we need money for our classrooms,” Ferguson said. “We have so many different things that the money can go to, versus going to police.”  

Hundreds marched from the High School of Commerce in Springfield, Massachusetts, to City Hall in June 2020 to protest police in city schools.
Credit Ben James / NEPR
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NEPR
Hundreds marched from the High School of Commerce in Springfield, Massachusetts, to City Hall in June 2020 to protest police in city schools.
Students hold signs at City Hall in Springfield, Massachusetts, opposing school policing, in the summer of 2020.
Credit Ben James / NEPR
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NEPR
Students hold signs at City Hall in Springfield, Massachusetts, opposing school policing.

In a tense exchange at a recent virtual town hall, student organizers brought their demands directly to Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno.

“Will you commit to phasing out armed police officers over the next three years, until armed police officers are completely out of Springfield schools, and replaced with unarmed school security staff?” asked Jessy Hernandez, a recent Central High School graduate.

“No,” Sarno said.  

“Can we ask why not?” a student responded.  

“The proof’s in the pudding,” Sarno said. “You wanted a simple answer? You get a simple answer. No.”   

Sarno claimed the police presence is effective, pointing to rising achievement scores and reduced dropouts and suspensions. He said officers are in schools for safety, not to discipline students.

But Springfield School Committee member Denise Hurst said the decision on school policing isn’t only up to Sarno.

“That's not a decision that he gets to make unilaterally,” Hurst said. “That is a decision of the board.”

Hurst — who’s running this year for a seat in the Massachusetts state legislature — said Springfield does need to re-examine the function of police in its schools. She said she’s heard from some students and families who have formed positive relationships with school officers, but that district officials need to consider the effects of systemic racism.

“Students of color are disproportionately engaged in their criminal justice system at a much higher rate than their white counterparts, and at a younger age,” she said.

School districts in Denver and Seattle recently suspended their partnerships with police. Los Angeles cut its school police budget by $25 million, while the Chicago Board of Education narrowly voted to keep its contract with police intact. 

There’s an urgency to the question of school policing that comes not only from the movement for Black lives, but also from the challenge of reopening schools during a pandemic. The Massachusetts Teachers Association is tying a successful reopening to more robust anti-racist education, as well as reduced school policing. 

“We are encouraging our local districts to really examine how they meet the emotional health and safety needs of students and reimagine the roles of police in schools,” said Merrie Najimy, president of the MTA.

In Northampton, the issue of school policing recently came to a head when the police chief decided to pull the city’s one school resource officer out of the middle and high schools. That came after the City Council cut the police budget by 10%.

Not everyone in Northampton agrees with the officer’s reassignment.

City native BJ Plante and her neighbor, Mona Singler, started an online petition requesting that officer Joshua Wallace and his sidekick — an emotional support dog named Douglas — be reinstated to Northampton schools. The petition has more than 1,300 signatures.

“In such a time of uncertainty and chaos, the last thing we need to do is remove a wonderful community resource,” Plante said.

Plante said numerous kids have relied on Wallace, including her daughter, who graduated from the high school this year.

“He comes in and he talks to them,” Plante said. “He brings down their anxiety levels. The presence of the dog itself is phenomenal. Like, what kind of medicine the two of them together are.” 

BJ Plante, left, and Mona Singler started an online petition to reinstate officer Joshua Wallace and his emotional support dog to schools in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Credit Ben James / NEPR
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NEPR
BJ Plante, left, and Mona Singler started an online petition to reinstate officer Joshua Wallace and his emotional support dog to schools in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Comments on the petition attest to Wallace’s ability to build strong connections with at-risk students.

But Northampton High School rising junior Kamini Waldman said those services shouldn’t require a gun and a badge.

“There's other ways we can get a therapy dog into the school,” Waldman said. A member of the Student Union, she points to a frequent justification for having police in schools: mass shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida.

“Maybe this isn't the right way to put it, but I don't have a minimal fear of a school shooting. I'm terrified,” she said.

Even with that terror, Waldman said restorative justice practices, anti-racist classrooms, and trained conflict mediators would all be a better fit for her school.

“I think the want for a school resource officer really comes from a place of fear,” she said. “And I think we have to do more than just be afraid. I mean, I think students are the best voices for that, right? We live in this fear every single day, yet there's a good number of us who are campaigning to not have a school resource officer.” 

School committees in Northampton and Springfield will deliberate on school policing during their July and August meetings.

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