People holding signs saying Stop Criminalizing Children

Photo by Ralph Orr

“It is a basic right to learn in a building that is not 95 degrees. I never had that all four of my years in high school, but I did have an armed officer every single day of the year.”

The 72-hour deadline given by numerous students, alumni, parents, teachers, activist groups and OSU academic departments to Columbus City Schools (CCS) to end its partnership with Columbus Police passed over the weekend, but CCS leadership has not offered an exact answer yet.

Unlike the quick decision the Minneapolis Public School board took in removing police or School Resource Officers (SROs) from its city schools, a definitive response from CCS may not be forthcoming anytime soon, as suggested in a joint statement given by Superintendent/CEO Dr. Talisa Dixon and CCS Board President Jennifer Adair.

“We hear you, and we are listening. We agree it’s an appropriate issue for discussion. We are committed to working tirelessly for change in our schools and in our community,” stated Dixon and Adair’s statement.

Nevertheless, hundreds of protesters converged on CCS Board President Adair’s neighborhood Monday night (June 8th) seeking to persuade her to expedite a decision. The CCS school board will vote at the end year as the contract with Columbus police expires then. The Free Press sent an email to the board asking whether they would have an emergency session to expedite a vote as the Minneapolis school board did, but we have not heard back.

The organizers behind the demand are a diverse and formidable voice. For instance, the group includes 25 organizations and non-profits, including OSU’s Cognitive Development Lab (Psychology Department), Justice for Children Project (OSU’s Moritz College of Law), Central Vineyard Church, People’s Justice Project, and Yes We Can Columbus.

Two early 20-something women, both CCS alumni and current college students – Kanyinsola Oye and Julia Allwein – initiated the demand to remove officers. Inspiration struck after both were shot in the legs with wooden bullets while protesting peacefully downtown during the first weekend of protests.

“We were sitting and actually on the sidewalk when we were shot,” said Allwein. “They were indiscriminately firing at protesters who had been in an intersection who then fled to the sidewalk, and the police kept firing. The police were relentless.”

Both are Columbus Alternative High School alumni and started organizing and advocating back then to improve Columbus City Schools.

“CCS in some ways raised me and I am thankful for the countless teachers, counselors and college directors that helped me reach my goals. But police officers in my school never encouraged me or made me feel safe,” said Oye. “The school-to-prison pipeline affects huge numbers of Black students and other students of color. We are seeking to disrupt that pipeline and instead, invest in stronger student support.”

Support being more funding to increase counselors, nurses, and social workers in schools.

CCS spent $1.3 million last school year and the city paid another estimated $1.3 million for the salaries of police in Columbus City schools, says Allwein. There is a total of 19 officers, one for each high school, and two sergeants. The total number of city school students is around 50,000 with 77 percent being black.

Allwein says choosing to invest in armed police officers from a department with a history of brutality instead of providing air conditioning sends a clear message to students.

“It is a staggering amount,” says Allwein. “It’s even more staggering given the conditions of some our schools. At our high school, we learned alongside rats and roaches. We did not have air conditioning. It is a basic right to learn in a building that is not 95 degrees. I never had that all four of my years in high school, but I did have an armed officer every single day of the year.”

In their recent press releases, organizers cite numerous studies (by the ACLU for instance) which show police in schools provide little safety but actually increase criminalization and trauma of children, even as young as 5-years-old. Allwein says increasing numbers of Columbus Police in city schools started in the 1990s.

“In 1975 one percent of schools in the nation had armed police officers,” she says. “So when people pose these questions to us, ‘What about school fights?’, we say students were the same in 1975 as they are now. We found a way to deal with fights and other day-to-day issues when you have high schoolers in the building and we can do that again.”

What’s more, police have been videoed holding children in chokeholds, body slamming them and punching them in the face, for something as innocuous as cutting the cafeteria line.

But the threat from school shooters is a more modern threat, this cannot be denied. And while the chance for this nightmare event to occur is minimal, such devastation and tragedy can never should not be downplayed, and some type of protective strategy needs to be in place.

Furthermore, the teacher advocacy group WeAreTeachers reportedin 2019 “teachers are reporting more aggressive behavior (by students) than ever before” aimed at both fellow students and teachers. Their research contradicts any belief that school safety has remained the same over the previous five or more decades.

The Free Press spoke to several long-time City school teachers to get their views. They all wished to remain anonymous.

“There is a lot of disagreement among teachers – some want to keep SROs for safety, and because they have established good relationships with students. Others are looking at it from a student’s point of view. Lots of students have either experienced or witnessed police brutality firsthand and having an SRO in the building could be triggering,” said one teacher.

Another City school teacher told us, “I think discussions should take place. Guidelines, boundaries and professional expectations for SROs should be laid out, and then we see what happens. I don’t think completely getting rid of SROs is the answer, but I also think there needs to be a meaningful change so that students can be comfortable.”

“I can’t speak to how many teachers are assaulted per year – I don’t think anyone in the district could since lots of teachers don’t report it, especially special ed teachers,” said a City school teacher who teaches autistic students. “Since we chose to work with special ed kids, it’s kind of ‘understood’ that there will always be a risk of us getting hurt. I’ve never had an SRO intervene when I’ve been assaulted. I’ve also broken up two fights and the SRO wasn’t involved. But at my school the SRO has a great relationship with the special ed kids. And I know he’s broken up quite a few fights that could have been worse had he not been there.”

Allwein believes any data about rising school violence should be contextualized, who’s reporting this? Mostly white teachers?

“Our schools are mired in racial bias,” she says. “Children are children, they are kids. They don’t deserve to be criminalized for making a mistake. Police officers have punched 13-year-olds in the face for ditching in line. If you make that mistake in 1975 you may see a counselor. But instead of being responded with by a counselor, today it’s an actual police officer. Some kids see a police officer as a source of trauma and fear.”