The vote to gradually remove police from schools occurred one year after mass protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd spurred calls across the country to rethink the approach to policing in communities and schools. Now, many communities are reevaluating whether cutting police funding was the right approach.
“We never agreed with the idea of removing school resource officers from schools,” Bowser (D) said in an interview. “These are the same officers that show up in a building every day. The administrators know [them]. The children know him or her.”
While the DC Council has debated the role of police in schools, the provision to phase officers out was tucked in the sweeping $17.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2022 and not voted on separately. That budget unanimously passed.
School resource officers are police trained to build relationships with students and handle issues that arise in schools. The Bowser administration says these police officers are not on campus to arrest students, but to create a rapport with them so they can diffuse tension better than an officer who is not trained to work with students.
But last year, a Council-appointed Police Reform Commission recommended that the city remove police from schools, arguing that having armed officers in schools creates a culture of fear and policing in them. Some city leaders dismissed the findings of the commission, suggesting that it reflected the view of activists not the community.
The city employed 97 school resource officers who floated between traditional public and charter schools last academic year. This year, there are 80 officers.
“Scaling back police presence in schools is essential to protecting young people and prioritizing safe education spaces, particularly for students of color and students with disabilities,” read a letter sent to the DC Council Wednesday during budget hearings and signed by 40 community groups seeking to abolish police in local schools. “Black students are more likely to be arrested at school for normal adolescent behavior than their white counterparts.
Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) — who chairs the judiciary and public safety committee and pushed to phase out police in schools — has not said how he would handle the mayor’s proposal. Council members Christina Henderson (I-At Large), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) and Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) are among the council members who have said they still believe phasing out police in schools is the right approach. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he supports the mayor’s proposal, but would not vote against the entire budget if it continues the phase out.
During the budget hearings this week, Police Chief Robert J. Contee III and DC Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee continued to defend policing in schools. Both have cited at the hearing and in interviews a rise in violent incidents as students in the District and across the country struggle to readjust to being in classrooms after learning from home for so long during the pandemic.
Contee said gun seizures in schools are increasing. The police chief tested that he recently received a phone call from a council member, who he did not identify, who said teachers were afraid in their school building, and told him: “There are no police officers in that school.”
The now controversial school police program was created after a student was shot inside Ballou High in Southeast Washington in 2004 and later died in the hospital. It was Contee, the then-head of the police department’s homicide unit, who responded to that shooting. He has publicly described standing over the shot student inside the school.
Contee said if police are removed from schools, the department is considering workarounds, including having police attempt to build relationships with students outside of schools during arrival and dismissal times.
“I think this is an incredible mistake that we are making,” he said.
Ferebee said in an interview that if police were removed from schools, police — who do not have relationships with the students or may not be specifically trained to interact with students — would still be called to school. He argued that this could lead to more arrests.
“When you do not know the student they do have a relationship with you, that could impact how the school resource officer responds, and that could impact how the student responds,” Ferebee said. “If relationships do not exist, it could go wrong.”
City leaders have said that there is a misperception of the role of police in schools. One common reason that police are called to elementary schools, for example, is when fights break out between parents in custody battles on campus. In the vast majority of these cases, school leaders said, no one is arrested. These officers also help supervise students on parts of their commutes to and from schools—commutes that are punctured by community gun violence and adolescent fights.
While there is no formal rule, city leaders have said that police are not supposed to execute warrants on school grounds for crimes that do not occur at school. But officers can arrest students if there is a violent crime happening there. In all, city officials said resource officers made 62 school-based arrests and other DC police officers made 36 school-based arrests in the 2019-2020 academic year. “School-based” includes arrests made during off-campus school activities, such as sporting events.
Ferebee said the council did not gather enough feedback from parents, students and school staff before voting to phase out school police last year.
‘I would like to see more robust engagement before a change like this is made,’ he said.
Council Member Robert C. White Jr., who is running against Bowser for mayor, said the city needs a more thoughtful approach to security in schools, possibly working with security officers who are trained in both public safety and restorative justice practice.
“We do need our schools to be safe, and the reason so many people don’t want police in schools is because they worry about unnecessary interactions between young people and the police,” White said. “Now, I believe that our best approach is trained security officers who are not police but can keep students and teachers safe.’
DC schools also have unarmed security guards at the entrances of school buildings. The police department had long held the contract for this security and been in charge of hiring. But in 2020, the DC Council voted to give the school system control of this contract.
Ferebee said he launched a pilot program last year where schools could choose to eliminate one security guard and put the money toward mental health or behavioral services. More than a dozen schools have participated.
Emily Davies contributed to this report.