Prison Pipeline or School Resource? The Controversy of Police in Education

 The presence of police officers in schools is a key contributor to the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Ella Roach

The presence of police officers in schools is a key contributor to the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

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Wisconsin has the second-highest disparity in prison incarceration rates in the nation.

According to data from The Sentencing Project, black people in Wisconsin are incarcerated at an 11.5 times higher rate than white people, second only to New Jersey’s 12.2. Put another way, in 2014, the incarceration rate per 100,000 in Wisconsin was 2,542 for black people, compared to only 221 for white people.

The disparity comes as Wisconsin’s prison population increased for the fifth year in a row in 2017 – an increase which is a result of policy and laws, not increased crime rates. (For proof, Minnesota has similar crime rates, but only half of Wisconsin’s incarceration rates.) The country’s prison population as a whole has exploded over the last few decades, with the 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails today marking a 500% increase from 40 years ago, when President Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs program in the 1970s.

The War on Drugs, while presented as an attempt to combat America’s drug epidemic through the criminalization of illegal substances, ultimately served as a tool to funnel black and Latino Americans into the prison system. Many point to the Nixon-introduced and Reagan-spearheaded campaign as the start of the era of mass incarceration in the United States.

Today, mass incarceration poses a severe threat to Americans of color. According to the ACLU, “One out of every three black boys born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys – compared to one of every 17 white boys.”  

These racial disparities persist in Wisconsin’s youth incarceration rates. The 2015 custody rate per 100,000 juveniles was 56 for white juveniles, 128 for Latino juveniles, and a staggering 846 for black juveniles.

To explain these trends, many have pointed to schools as a catalyst for what they dub the school-to-prison pipeline. The school-to-prison pipeline has many nuanced definitions, but the short version is that students of color are punished more harshly and educated at a lower quality than white students in public education, setting the students of color on a path that’s more likely to lead to the juvenile detention and prison systems.

Madison area students spoke out on the issue of the school-to-prison pipeline this past school year. Students of color calling themselves the Freedom Youth Squad, a subgroup of Freedom, Inc., a local group that advocates for communities of color in Dane County, launched a campaign to remove Educational Resource Officers (EROs) from the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD).

They made headlines for shutting down school board meetings while protesting for their demands, which include repurposing the $360,000 budget used to employ the EROs for investing in youth of color, more restorative justice in schools, and less punitive punishments.

While the Madison School Board voted on June 10, 2019, to pass a contract that would keep EROs in the four MMSD high schools, the Madison City Council needs to vote on the contract before it can be finalized. The contract also holds the option to drop one ERO beginning in the 2020-2021 school year.

With the tumultuous relationship between students of color and police in schools unfolding next door to Middleton, The Cardinal Chronicle decided to investigate the reasoning behind and the student relationship to School Resource Officers stationed in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District. This article is not a discussion about the ethics of removing officers from Madison schools, but rather a chance to reflect on the dynamics at Middleton High School, and how the presence of a School Resource Officer (SRO) in the building impacts the student body, especially students of color.

 

Role of the School Resource Officer at MHS

We first need to understand why School Resource Officers serve in Middleton schools, starting with the history of the position.

The School Resource Officer (SRO) program was first implemented in MCPASD in the 1980s to address the issues that were arising in a larger school. MHS School Resource Officer Tyler Loether said, “With crime rates that are increasing, the role of it all along has always been to increase that trust and build rapport.”

Today, Loether explained, there are three major components to the position: teacher, mentor, and law enforcement officer. “I think the most important thing for me to do is be a visible presence in the building and get to know kids and develop that relationship,” he said. The SRO also plays a large role in school safety, which includes training staff on security procedures and providing physical security for the building.

“The other component to [the job] is just the sheer size of this school,” Loether said. “With 2,000 plus people, that’s the size of a lot of small villages in Wisconsin that have their own police department. So it’s really reasonable to have at least an officer here, just to deal with the day-in, day-out issues that come up as far as calls for service activity.”

Where a standard patrol officer would react to situations as they come up, the SRO has the opportunity to work proactively with the school district to refine safety and tackle individual student issues more thoroughly. In that regard, the position is “kind of turned upside down” from a standard patrol officer, Loether explained.  

Laura Love, the Director of Secondary Education for MCPASD, said that the district’s SROs serve as a response to major crises, such as emergencies and threats to safety. The SROs also run educational programming in middle and high school health classes on the topic of drug and alcohol abuse, and they serve as consultants for questions on legal or illegal behaviors for students or staff.

“I believe that we have to be extremely clear about the officer’s role in the school. That the officer’s role in the school is not discipline,” Love said. “And an officer should not get involved in any disciplinary response without a request from an administrator. And that needs to be really clear.”

Loether does work closely with administrators to maintain an open line of communication, so he rarely does investigations alone. “We have a very student-centered focus,” he said, referring to how he and the administration continually seek alternative responses to issues.  “If there is a restorative method that we can use or something else that there’s still accountability for that student, I’m all in favor of that. I don’t think citations are always the answer.”

Still, part of the role inevitably involves arrests and citations. Loether most commonly gives citations at the high school for both drug and substance issues – including Juuling and possession of nicotine – and physical fights. He rarely arrests students, and when he does, he tries to avoid arresting them in school. In the 2018 calendar year, MHS SROs issued 42 municipal citations and referred nine criminal arrests a result of school incidents, according to the Middleton Police Department 2018 Annual Report.

“A lot of times, a big part of my job is just connecting the dots for people or pointing things in the right direction when we are in a crisis mode. Maybe it’s something that I can help with, but it shouldn’t be a direct police involvement,” Loether said. In other words, the emphasis is on how he can be a resource to school and police officials, especially considering that MCPASD expands into three police jurisdictions: the City of Madison, the sheriff’s office, and the Middleton Police Department.

 

How the SRO differs from Campus Support

Campus Support – whom students may know as the adults that walk around school hallways armed with walkie talkies – was developed approximately four years ago to modify the disciplinary approach in Middleton schools.

The positions used to be called “Dean’s Assistants,” according to Love, and the Dean’s Assistants  “were a little bit more on the punitive side.” In the redesigning process and renaming them Campus Support, the goal was “to be more supportive for students who don’t like school, whether that was students of color or not students of color,” Love said. Campus Support was meant to be “a friendly face, a welcoming face, somebody they could talk to, somebody that students felt comfortable with in the halls.”

Regarding minor behavioral issues, Loether explained that Campus Support is the “front line” at the high school, using the example of kids being in the hallway when they should be in class. “That’s really not something that I think it’s good practice to have a police officer immediately going and dealing with. Now, while those students may technically be truant from class, I think there’s a better way to deal with that,” Loether said. “And our Campus Support people are really that front line in terms of a different presence that they have versus a uniformed police officer, going and chasing kids in the building. So, that’s where we kind of differ – especially on lower level behavior issues, I really defer to them, and I’ll actually step away and remove myself from that.”

Tre Seals, who works as Campus Support for Middleton High School, highlighted the same dynamic, saying, “I think our School Resource Officer does a great job of not imposing himself unless he has no other choice . . . Our police officer – I know that Tyler doesn’t walk around the hallway, toting his badge or anything like that. He’s just here, and he’s only used as a resource when he has to be. And I think he likes it that way because his goal isn’t to police people just to be policing. He’s here just to make sure everybody’s safe, and the environment is conducive for everyone.”

Seals clarified the distinction between the role of the School Resource Officer and the role of Campus Support in the building. “Tyler is an actual police officer, so he can issue tickets or violations, or anything like that,” Seals said. Campus Support, on the other hand, is a “multi-faceted role.” One of the facets is security, which includes reviewing any security guard that works at any school and making sure the building is secure.

“But I also have a role that I embrace as a student advocate, and a student support system,” Seals said. Sometimes he attends classes with students, helping them get started on the introductions and get through homework assignments. “I also counsel a lot of students. I was just counseling students just a bit ago up in the Treehouse, just helping them de-escalate, deal with some of the frustrations that they had, and kind of figure out how to verbally articulate their feelings so that way they can communicate that effectively and through that get more out of their situation than just being upset.”

 

The relationship between the SRO and the school community

Due to his recurring presence in the building, Loether thinks that his relationship with the student body is “quite positive.” He illustrated an example: after he has to make a citation or arrest for a student, and the student grows mad at him during that encounter, “The same students are usually in my office the next day, sometimes apologizing, or working with me as far as next steps,” Loether said.

“And that’s what I see as really rewarding about this position. In patrol, if there’s an issue, we’re going to deal with it, move on: warning, ticket, whatever it is. We go on our merry way, and we don’t see them again. Here, I’m with that student the next day, so we need to have that working relationship, and I think that’s a huge difference.”

When asked specifically about his relationship with students of color, Loether said, “I think it’s something that’s very important for me to be mindful of as a white male cop in a school. Just me walking into a room wearing this, regardless of who I am or anything else, is going to have a certain effect.”

Loether hopes behaviors such as greeting students at the front door in the hallway and introducing himself to students can help improve that relationship. “I think there are students of color that unfortunately I can’t reach and it’s just because of who I am,” Loether said. “But if they’re willing to have that type of conversation, I’m absolutely willing to build that bridge and extend that hand.”

Students have various opinions on the MHS School Resource Officer.

Almainique Hester, a rising senior, had a negative experience with police officers in her Iowa middle school before coming to MCPASD. “I was one of two black students in a mostly white middle school. I remember I was in the class and one of the white kids kept teasing me. And so, as he kept proceeding to get on my nerves and making me angry, I hit him. I didn’t really mean to, but he didn’t get in trouble, but I got in trouble. I was suspended, and the police were involved, and they were saying how this black student was just like starting a ruckus and things like that. And that really hurt,” she said.

Hester’s school did not employ a School Resource Officer; all the police involved were from the local police department. “It was an overreaction, honestly,” Hester said. “Because I feel like if it was in that moment of time, if there were two white students going at it, then there wouldn’t be any police . . . They just did the police because they assumed that all black people are just bad and that they were just looking for trouble, but that’s just judging, in a way. That’s what I think. Cause how he was doing it was just kind of a racism thing.”

The negative experience affected Hester’s perception of the Middleton SRO for a little while. “But then when I was talking to my mom about it, she was just saying, you can’t judge one person and think that all of them are just bad. Because I had a bad experience with a cop, then I can’t just judge a whole police system on what they do. Because they do risk their life. Their lives protect us. And I can’t just judge them for what that cop did to me,” she said.  

Elijah Vance, a rising sophomore, has interacted with the SRO a few times for health class. While he thinks the officer seems “pretty cool and chill,” he said about having an SRO in school, “Well, personally, I know that from experience, cause I’m a minority, that I get scared when I see a cop, because I feel like there’s a racial difference between us and I feel nervous when he comes into a room. So if he’s in the same room with me, I’ll instantly get nervous, even if I know I’m not in trouble.”

Tre Seals has not only experienced Middleton High School as Campus Support; he used to be an MHS student from 2009 to 2013. He talked about his experience as a student of color relating to the SRO at the time, who “carried himself just like Tyler does. He never really got involved unless he had to get involved,” Seals said.

Still, Seals explained, he was always hyperaware when the SRO was around him at school. “In the community that I grew up in, we didn’t really mess with police officers,” he said. He clarified, “And I can only speak from my perspective. Some students may have more involvement than I did with police officers. It may make them feel more on edge.”

Keda Seals, a rising sophomore, felt mostly indifferent about having a police presence in the building. K. Seals “had one run-in” with our SRO, but “[the SRO] was cool. He was pretty nice about the situation. He handled it like any other person would’ve handled it, like an adult. That was pretty cool. He didn’t give any tickets out,” K. Seals said. “I mean, it’s fine. It doesn’t really bother me. It’s basically like another person in the school.”

Tianbra Grant, a rising senior, feels safer with a police presence in the building, citing the threat of school shootings. “As long as they’re trained correctly,” Grant added. “All cops should be trained in non-discriminatory practices, where you need to know how to deal with people of color – period.”

In MCPASD, any officer who wants to become an SRO must complete training through the National Association of School Resource Officers, which comprises of a basic 40-hour course and additional adolescent mental health training.

They must also attend the MCPASD Equity Institute for Racial Justice, a four-day training for adults with the sub-heading Leading From the Inside Out. As Love explained, “It’s an education on racial bias awareness and the history of racial oppression in our country as well as how individual, institutional, and structural racism plays out today . . . We have a lot of content to help – I would say mostly white people, but not only white people – understand the basis of today’s racism, subtle racism, implicit bias, how microaggressions impact people of color. But also how policies and structures negatively impact students and families of color in our system.”

Antonio Hoye, the Student and Family Engagement specialist at MHS, cited the positive effect that these trainings can have beyond the high school community in the form of community policing. When SROs get the chance to work in schools, the change in how they interact with the school community carries with them when they transition back to being out on the streets. Hoye calls that improved community-police relationship a “win-win,” because then police officers are “out there, building those relationships, being involved, and being seen through a lens that is truly here to protect and serve.”

Hoye acknowledges that some students of color feel tense around law enforcement in a school setting. “But I’ve also seen some of those same students over the course of time, because of the individuals that we’ve had as school resource officers . . . be able to be open and build a relationship with our school resource officer. And vice versa,” he said. Overall, he thinks the MHS School Resource Officers have “done a tremendous job in building relationships.”

 

The school-to-prison pipeline

While the short definition to the school-to-prison pipeline was explained at the beginning of this article, the pipeline has many layers and contributing factors.

Vance is currently writing an English paper about racial discrimination in law enforcement, including the school-to-prison pipeline. He summarized the issue succinctly: “Many statistics [show] that police and school set us up for failure. Cause they suspend us for longer, and then . . . we just go on a bad trend because we’re bored and we’re out of school, so we have nothing to do. And then in-school suspension, we’re set in a room, and we’re just stuck and not doing anything.”

Hoye described the school-to-prison pipeline with a story. He thumped his fist against the table as he talked, leading from one point to the next, serious, urgent. “When you have students that get into a fight at school, then all of a sudden later they get a ticket, then they can’t afford to pay the ticket, then maybe they have some sort of volunteer kind of hours, or maybe they get into a fight to where they actually hurt someone, disorderly conduct, and battery, now they’re facing charges, then all of a sudden they’re out of school for a number of days, weeks, months, and then now they got a charge. Now all of a sudden they fighting a case, and then they found guilty or take a plea with the case and then if it’s a couple fights maybe we’ve seen kids that’s got into a handful of fights and all of a sudden they were charged with a crime and they went to juvie for three to six months or whatever. Now you’re removing them out of the education system.”

“And without being able to receive an education, in my mind, then that leads to options that won’t make for good choices that allow students to now flirt, I would say, with criminal activity. . . And then trying to come back and trying to get caught back up in school . . . just sets the stage for the person to have to fight this uphill battle that sometimes a lot of us don’t win,” Hoye said.

Seals underscored how the lack of quality education for students of color contributes to the pipeline by turning those students into adults who are unprepared for the adult world. Then, they can’t work a high-paying job because they don’t have the skills or resources to do so. “And that’s when selling drugs and doing things that kind of gamble with your life becomes more appealing, because it can put money on the table for the people that you care about a lot quicker than working two weeks at a job that only pays you $7.25, when you can sell drugs and make $3,000 a month as opposed to $800,” he said.

Hoye circled the narrative back to School Resource Officers, saying, “I think the focus is on the fact that it’s that instant direct contact to where if a student [does] something in schools, having that police officer right on site, it allows that quick, immediate possible interaction that can lead to a citation or a charge.”

Love agreed that the school-to-prison pipeline starts with a discipline incident involving an officer in school.  The issue, she said, is bidirectional: the school brings officers into situations they might not have otherwise been involved in, starting a student’s record. In turn, that “also starts a student down the path of feeling like the school is an agent of law enforcement,” she said. “. . . And then it gets incrementally larger both in the mind of the student and with additional tickets,” Love said.

The critical component of the school-to-prison pipeline is the path it sends students down, Love emphasized. “All of us have probably done something illegal, whether it’s speeding, or maybe something larger than that, and if we’re caught, it sends us in one direction; if we’re not caught, we go another direction,” she said. “And what the school to prison pipeline is doing is you’re caught in school, now law enforcement comes in, now you’re headed down this one direction.”

The presence of police in schools is only one factor of the pipeline. Seals listed many other issues that form the pipeline:

  • the level at which African Americans’ school work is modified;
  • the lack of quality education that many minority students get;
  • redlining;
  • the introduction of crack cocaine into urban environments and ghettos that house a lot of minorities;
  • socio-economic status;
  • the lack of generational wealth that stems from inequitable distribution of land, when educated people of color with money applied for home loans and were “purposely not given that opportunity to start building wealth,” which passes down socio-economic status from one generation to the next;
  • and covert and explicit racism, especially in the form of “people who have these racial biases getting a high education, going through secondary education, and getting degrees, and then becoming judges, and lawyers, and stuff like that, and still having that implicit negative intention or bias towards African American students or people,” Seals said.

The school-to-prison pipeline weaves through so many issues because it has been around for centuries; it was built into the unequal foundation of our education system. Hoye commented on the deep roots of the issue, saying, “We all know that this education system truly isn’t built for everyone, like a cookie cutter kind of structure.” When people talk about “dismantling” the school-to-prison pipeline and removing the layers, he said, that is like trying to dismantle the entire education structures that we teach and learn in.

Hoye believes that dismantling the pipeline requires a focus on the individual students facing its mouth. “If we can build more individual leaders, then we can eliminate that school to prison pipeline,” Hoye said. “Then we can eliminate the cattle – the humans – that’s being funneled through that pipeline.”

 

The pipeline at Middleton

Loether refutes the idea that the SRO position helps funnel students along the school-to-prison pipeline. “In fact, I quite often see the opposite, where because I’m here, I have that rapport, and I’m aware of those other situations; we’re able to deal with situations and handle them reasonably . . . but without a citation or arrest,” he said.

If the school does not employ an SRO, school administration will still have to call the police for various issues. “It’s gonna result in the officer coming; they have other things to deal with; they’re going to handle it quickly, give that ticket; and move on,” Loether said. The lack of relationship or understanding of school procedures by patrol officers coming in “could even escalate the situation and make it worse.”

Hoye understands that the first interaction between an officer in school and a student can send a student down the path to prison. However, he said, “if a school resource officer is being best utilized in their role, it actually adds a lot more value to the school, in the sense of safety, for students, for staff, for community.” He agreed that having an SRO in the building can help minimize calls to exterior law enforcement, and possibly help dissolve situations prior to a citation or arrest.

Hoye stressed that this position does not necessarily apply to the Madison schools or any other school district: “because [of] our relationships, because [of] our ongoing dialogue, our communication, and our team and our work efforts, I think we are in a unique place with our school resource officer and with our police department,” he said.

Seals reinforced that point, voicing strong approval for keeping an SRO in the high school. However, he said, “I can’t speak for every resource officer that works at every high school. I know covert racism is a thing, and there are some good cops, there are some bad cops.”  The idea that School Resource Officers are directly connected to the school-to-prison pipeline probably comes from “some of those bad cops working in the school, and then being hypervigilant with their responses,” Seals said.

He connected it back to the events happening in the Madison schools, saying that the size of Madison “definitely provides that opportunity for there to be bad police officers and bad people conducting themselves in that role and having poor relationships with students.”

Seals thinks that Middleton High School has been extremely lucky to be able to select quality SROs from “a very solid police department.” His opinion on the Middleton SROs not contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline is formed “because of my perspective on the School Resource Officer that I deal with on a daily basis,” Seals said.

Almainique Hester straddled two sides in her answer. “Not all cops are bad, and not all black students are bad, or any color students,” she said. “. . . I do feel like police officers do come here to protect people. But also, I have to look at the color side of students and how they feel about a police officer being here.”

Seals put it best when he said, “What it boils down to is perspective.”

 

MCPASD response to the school-to-prison pipeline

Cognizant of the systemic issues that plague public education, a few years ago, the district decided that they needed Campus Support and campus advocates for youth of color, according to Love.

They added staff positions specifically focused on students of color: the position for the Director of Equity and Student Achievement, currently filled by Percy Brown, and six Student and Family Engagement (SAFE) specialists in the district at the secondary level, including Antonio Hoye at MHS.

As part of the SAFE team, Hoye works with administrators and students the high school, middle school, and elementary school levels. At the end of the day, his job is to “establish and build relationships,” Hoye said. His position involves trying to “put a necessary system in place to help out students of color get to a level of being on the same playing field with all our students, academically.”

He also tries to build opportunities for students to gain experience outside of school to hopefully “help internalize some motivation and build some confidence and want them to take whatever it is they want to get in life,” he said.  “Not more serious, but knowing, hey, I can be this, I can be this, but in order for me to be and do these things I have to make sure I come back here and do the certain things here that’s going to help me get to that place.”

The district also initiated a plan to become a restorative community, which Love said includes the whole spectrum of restorative practices, including restorative justice and “community building from the beginning to include every voice on an equal playing field is the other side of the spectrum.”

The path to get there is starting to take shape. Next year, district leaders will start to develop an approximately three-year-long district-wide professional development plan to systemically and sustainably implement restorative justice in the rest of MCPASD. The plan will in part emulate the process at Clark Street Community School, which Love cited as the best example of restorative justice being implemented effectively and system-wide in the district, and will work to combat the way that “[restorative justice] has been implemented ineffectively for years,” Love said.

So what is restorative justice? Hoye explained it as a way to “try to figure out a way for us to find accountability in the situation, and be able to voice your truth and my truth, and at the end of the day just try to find a way for us to move forward with the respect of one another.” It most frequently manifests in MCPASD as a restorative circle, which in its most basic form “represent[s]  an opportunity for everyone just to be heard,” Hoye said.

He described an example of a circle: two students who get into a fight, maybe a parent or relative for each, and himself or another authority to be a Circle Keeper. A circle might also include a talking piece, Hoye said, “so when it’s your turn to speak, all the time is yours.”  

Restorative justice sometimes removes police officers from the process. Loether acknowledged that his presence in a restorative circle could hinder a healing process for students since he usually handles the initial investigation. “So I think that’s where our support staff come in and play a pretty critical role,” Loether said.

Tianbra Grant, who has researched restorative justice for sociology class and school papers, supports the transition. Restorative justice is better than severe punishments, Grant said, because the latter is “not making [students] grow. It’s making them angry, and not wanting to be here,” she said.

While the implementation of Campus Support and efforts to transition into restorative justice are positive steps, Love acknowledged that it has not eliminated all of the potential negative ramifications of police in schools. “I think we have brought officers in on occasion to some situations that they do not need to be involved in. And that can happen at the middle school [too],” Love said. “But I’ve also seen administrators prevent that from happening in the middle schools and the high school. So, I think, have we been guilty of that at times? Absolutely. And we’re really working to become a restorative community.”

Hoye thinks MHS needs to work on community building in the first place before people try to restore community. The most critical component of community building is facing difficult conversations head-on, which requires that people be willing to trust, be vulnerable, and make an effort to understand peers, coworkers, and teachers, Hoye said. Ultimately, students need to participate in these difficult conversations, which means staff needs to allow them. “It’s up to you [students] to figure out how we move as a community,” Hoye said. “Because we all are here to serve you.”

Love wants to include students in a broader discussion about how to define the role of the School Resource Officer. She acknowledged that she comes from a white, privileged, power position, and she wants to bring other voices into the discussion.

One of the key questions in that discussion, Love said, is, “How could we actually build a very proactive relationship between the officer and the students of color, first and foremost?” She wants to flip the traditional power dynamic around. “Students of color should get an opportunity to meet with an officer on a regular basis, proactively, from their perspective, on their terms,” Love said. “And say, here’s how we’d like to see you interacting with students of color and families of color, when an incident’s happening, and when it’s not.”

The situations that arise due to a police presence in schools are complex, Love noted, so a positive relationship is critical for the success of everyone involved. She understands why some people in the school community would want to remove the SROs; the impact of that would be both positive and negative, Love said, depending on the perspective.  “I just don’t know that removing them is the answer that will solve what people are trying to get after,” she said.

 

Impacts beyond incarceration

The school-to-prison pipeline is a coalescence of issues that stem from systemic racism in the educational system and beyond. The debate around the presence of police officers in schools and how the school-to-prison pipeline contributes to mass incarceration are only two discussions sprouting from a deeper issue of the long history of racial injustice in the United States.

Racial injustice is especially prevalent in Wisconsin, which is ranked as one of the worst states for black Americans in a report by Columbia University’s Justice Lab.

The report cited several statistics to back up the ranking: the median income for black households is less than half that of white people; while 29.9% of white adults have at least a Bachelor’s degree, the same can only be said for 12.8% of Black adults; the unemployment rate for black people in Wisconsin is nearly five times that of white people; and perhaps most shockingly, currently, four out of every five black children in Wisconsin live in poverty (compared to the national average of one in three).

What this means for students of color in Wisconsin, including in the Middleton-Cross Plains schools, is that they often face an uphill battle in their education due to factors outside of their control.

Vance shared how being a student of color has impacted his entire education. He started at a preschool in the Madison Metropolitan School District before transferring to MCPASD. “When I came to Middleton, they were open arms, but I could spot there was some differences in how they treated people,” he said. “[Teachers] would just soft-talk me like they didn’t want to get me angry or something. I feel like . . .  some people try not to get me angry, not to get any of us angry so we don’t lash out.”

In addition, Vance felt that teachers would help him more, “like [he] was not smart enough,” even if he understood the topic. “And they wouldn’t help a kid that’s really struggling with it,” Vance said. “[At] a young age, I just let it slide, because I just thought, oh, maybe they just care more about me or something.” As Vance grew more educated on racial injustice, however, he became more aware of these differences in his education. “It affects me emotionally, but I don’t let it show, cause I just want to get a good education and grow up to be something successful,” he said.

When Vance moved on to Kromrey Middle School, he had to deal with a staff member who “was pretty racist, if I had to say myself,” Vance said. “My sister had troubles cause she’s Hispanic, and she’s had a white student say that she should go back to Mexico even though she lives here and was born here. And the school didn’t do anything about it for like two weeks.”

Vance’s voice tightened as he continued the story. “And it was kinda hard on me, because that’s my sister right there and I couldn’t do anything about it.” The school sent an email to the student body two weeks after the incident occurred, only after Vance’s mom came in and spoke to school officials. “[The school sends] emails out if it’s about a white student, but why’d it take so long for a Hispanic student to get an email about respecting someone?” Vance said.

A rising junior student of color (hereafter referred to by the pseudonym Diego) had an instant reaction to being interviewed for The Cardinal Chronicle. When asked for his name, he said, “Oh wait, nah, nah. You can’t be asking that, though. My bad. It’s not personal, but it’s just, the school’s always on dirt with me, and stuff.”

When told that he could remain anonymous, he hesitantly agreed to continue the interview. Diego shared his experience with the SRO and Campus Support: “They thought I was vaping in the bathroom when I was just taking a bathroom, man. I guess it’s just coming in at the wrong time and stuff, and then they just checked the cameras, they cleared me, but – they ain’t check the white boys, you know? Yeah, they just searched me.”  

Vance has noticed the same phenomenon. “Campus Support will follow . . . the minority groups more and search them more often. I’ve seen that a lot,” Vance said. “And it’s kind of unfair because some people are just trying to be here and get a good education, but I guess we get a bad rep.”

Like Vance, Diego started his education at a different school district, this time at one in California. Diego experienced a large difference when he moved to Middleton schools.  “There’s a lot of white people here. Everybody’s just white here, bro, in general,” he said. When asked how that affected him, he said, “I like staying with my culture, my type of person. And I don’t know, it’s just – it’s kind of weird, going in, but I just get used to it.”

Vance commented on the culture at Middleton and how it permeates the classroom. At the end of the day, he said, “I believe in our school system, but I also don’t like being here at Middleton cause I feel like I’m pushed out cause I’m a minority. I feel like if you’re not white or you’re not rich, that they’re the top priority and then you’re just going down to us. But I’m happy I go here cause I get a good education at the end of the day.”

 

Moving forward

There is no easy solution to the school-to-prison pipeline or the mass incarceration crisis that looms at its end. Both are built on years of systemic racism and injustice in our country, and solving those issues requires solving the heart of America’s severe inequalities.

Removing police from schools is only one factor of the discussion – but that does not belittle its importance. It is up to each school to assess its relationship with School Resource Officers stationed in the building, and whether or not removing  SROs would be more helpful or harmful to their school community.

At Middleton, while many agree on the positive aspects of the School Resource Officer program, issues with the presence of police in district schools remain. Love acknowledged this issue, saying, “I think until we are [a] fully restorative community, there’s a school-to-prison pipeline.”

Multiple students expressed a desire to remove the SROs from Middleton schools.  Diego cautiously said, “It depends what officer we’re talking about. But I wouldn’t want him here, low key.” He thought about his answer before he explained it. “I don’t know. I feel like sometimes they’re just stalking too much, at schools,” he said with a shrug.

Vance thinks that Middleton should remove resource officers from schools. “I think it’s a waste of our money,” Vance said. He thinks the money could be better used to invest in teachers of color. “I know that’s hard. But I’d get more teachers of color that people can relate to cause they’re the same, and they know the background of growing up hard or something . . . Cause not everyone can feel the pain that we feel.”

As the debate around police in schools progresses in Madison, the Middleton SRO position will be changing hands. Loether is wrapping up his second year as the MHS SRO and taking a new position within the police department over the summer. He will be training the next SRO, who has yet to be hired. “I do want to say thank you to the staff and students for my time here,” he said. “I think we’ve really built something positive here and I want to see that continue.”

While these issues are complicated, it is essential to continue having conversations about the presence of School Resource Officers in Middleton. School safety is complex, especially in today’s era of mass shootings, police brutality, and a growing gray area in the legalization of recreational drugs. Forming positive School Resource Officer-student relationships while preventing unnecessary police contact and citations is imperative to cultivating a healthy school community. This difficult balance can only be reached by creating a space where everyone has a voice in the conversation.