As the Keep Kids in Class Coalition marched in downtown St. Louis on Saturday, they outlined their demands.
They want the removal of all School Resource Officers (SROs) from St. Louis schools, as well as the redirection of more funding towards counseling, anti-racism training, and an institutionalized Black Studies curriculum.
Following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the Minneapolis Public Schools board voted to terminate its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, ending its in-school installation of police officers known as school resources officers, or SRO’s. The Denver, Portland, Oakland, and Seattle school boards did the same. Now, the Keep Kids in Class Coalition is advocating for St. Louis area schools to follow in their footsteps.
As the march was in the geographic area covered by St. Louis Public Schools, they focused in particular on interrogating the $6.3 million of SLPS budget that went towards security in academic year 2019-2020, out of a general fund budget of $193 million.
For comparison, in that same year SLPS spent 1.7 million on school library services, according to their budgetary document, and $81,000 on homeless and other disadvantaged student services. “Budgets are moral documents,” the American Friends Service Committee, a member of the coalition, stated with regards to the St. Louis Public Schools’ budget. “Spending $6.3 million on security that does not make kids safer is unacceptable.”
In the meantime, the Keep Kids in Class Coalition seeks more trainings for police and security officers working in schools,
Carolyn Randazzo, leader of the Metropolitan Congregations United education working group and a member of the coalition, said that her experience as an educator has shown her that trainings must be repeated and renewed over the years in order to have an impact.
“I’m a retired teacher, I know how trainings go. You have to go back and use what you learn, too. We demanded ongoing training, at least yearly,” Randazzo said. “It can’t be a one-done kind of thing.”
She said they specifically asked for training in child development.
“So, they realize if an 8-year-old is acting crazy, isn’t that kind of normal for an 8-year-old,” Randazzo said. “If they don’t get that kind of training, it’s hard to know how to respond to behavior.”
Rev. Dietra Baker, also an organizer with Metropolitan Congregations United, noted that limiting the number of officers in schools—while improving training for those who are there—would limit the number of instances in which, in her words “disciplinary issues become criminal issues.”
Often, Baker said, School Resource Officers are brought into question students for all disciplinary infractions, even those that would not ordinarily be within the purview of the police. They have a tendency to use those SROs to gather information for the school for issues that may just be disciplinary,” Baker said. The coalition demanded that SROs and security officers not be used to gather information from students without the presence of a parent or a lawyer. Doing so, she said, would “Clarify the role of the SROs...and make sure they’re only interacting with the students when there’s a criminal infraction.”
Teachers and students spoke at the march, including 8-year-old Nolan Davis of Kirkwood School District. “I want to speak for Black kids everywhere. Schools really need to think about not having police officers,” Davis said. “Seeing a police officer in school can be scary, because you don’t know if it’s a good police or a bad police. We don’t need police officers in our schools, we need trained counselors, trained teachers. It’s time for adults to do the work they should have been doing a long time ago.”
In Davis’ mention of “trained teachers,” he touched on another one of the groups’ demands: the institutionalization of Black Studies courses. Although some schools do in fact have classes focused specifically on Black history and culture—Metro Academic and Classical High School has a Black History course, while the Parkway school district has created African-American literature courses, for example—but, as Randazzo put it, those courses are often worth very few or no credits, which discourages students from choosing them.
“They might offer courses, but it might not count towards the credits for graduation. So, then it becomes, it might ruin their schedule to take this course and it isn’t going to count, as far as their credits,” Randazzo said.
For the Keep Kids in Class Coalition, the issues of limited Black Studies classes and highly funded school police departments are interconnected. Grace Taylor, another student who spoke, said it was all a matter of reimagining what safety and support look like: “What does safety look like when students who look like me are empowered through the knowledge of their history and culture and contributions to this country?” she asked. “What does safety look like if you have a well-funded arts program?”
"The safety and security of our children in school is not a function of the presence of police or security officers in a school building,” said Joshua Saleem, The American Friends Service Committee Program Director in St. Louis. “Rather, it is largely a function of individual student well-being and the health of peer relationships and school culture."