Metro, News

Campaign demands zero police presence in schools

Student, community groups seek more mental health resources, fewer SROs

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The “Counselors Not Cops” campaign, launched by local Providence organizations in December, seeks to remove law enforcement officers from Providence Public Schools and replace them with additional guidance counselors.

Providence Student Union, the Rhode Island Coalition Against Gun Violence, and University student group Thoughts, Prayers, Action began the campaign as part of a national movement started by Dignity in Schools, a coalition that seeks to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to PSU’s list of demands, the campaign’s aims are three-fold: eliminate School Resource Officers “to end the pattern of treating students as potential criminals”; use funding formerly allocated for SROs to hire more guidance counselors, nurses and mental health providers; and “rethink safety” by hiring community intervention workers, behavior interventionists or restorative justice coordinators to focus on “alternative measures for conflict resolution.” SROs, the career law enforcement officers deployed on community-oriented policing assignments, are usually armed, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers.

To implement these demands, the campaign calls for the creation of unique safety plans for each school in Providence. The plans would be based on restorative justice and include a peer mediator component. The campaign also pushes for schools to hire school counselors who represent the student body and offer restorative justice trainings for newly hired counselors.

Gabe Mernoff  ’22 has been working to get this campaign off the ground since he was a high school member of PSU. Currently leading the campaign for TPA, Mernoff became involved with the movement last summer with community partners before he arrived at the University. The campaign has found many allies in its efforts to increase mental health support in schools, but it has encountered opposition toward its push for the removal of SROs, Mernoff said.

Meetings with the Providence Police Department and the Providence Teachers’ Union suggested that “they were for the counselors part, and not for the cops part,” he said. There is some disagreement on this issue even among the coalition behind the “Counselors not Cops” campaign, Mernoff added.

“It’s still being sort of fleshed out on what we want the relationship between cops and schools to be, even though the official stance of the campaign is no cops,” Mernoff said.

Another challenge for the campaign will be securing funding to hire additional mental health professionals.

He explained that the campaign organizers will address the obstacle of funding once they’ve written legislation to complement their demands. That process began Tuesday, when campaign leaders met with a city solicitor to draft legislation, which Mernoff expects to be released in the coming months.

Aleita Cook ­­­— a student activist and senior at Providence Career and Technical Academy — is one of PSU’s organizers for the “Counselors Not Cops” campaign. She estimated there are over 15 high school students currently working on the campaign, including members of PSU, Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education and Providence Youth Student Movement.

“We’re just taking baby steps right now,” Cook said. “(We’re) just asking (school administrators and the police) to hear us out.”

When PSU met with Providence Public Schools, the district asked the group for evidence of the campaign’s success in other school districts of a similar size, Cook said. Conversation with Providence Police Department was less promising. “The police department’s not a big fan of the ‘Counselors Not Cops’ campaign,” Cook said. “First we were asking if maybe we could … keep the police, but remove the guns off the police officers.”

The Providence Police Department could not be reached for comment by press time.

It is likely that the campaign’s proposed legislation will be modified, potentially giving up on the elimination of police officers and their weapons, Mernoff said.

“I’m cautious to say exactly what parts may or may not be amended,” he added. “If we want it to be successful, and we saw that the cops part was holding us back from being able to get anything done, then … we would respond as necessary. … I could certainly see a situation where that ends up being some sort of compromise, or training for police officers rather than total removal of them.”

Currently, a contract between the Providence Police and Providence Public Schools supports an eight-person SRO presence that rotates through the school system, according to PSU. Providence Public Schools defended this law enforcement presence in a statement following the campaign’s launch:

“The safety and security of our students (is) our top priority in the Providence Public School District. We rely on the specially trained School Resource Officers not only to ensure a safe environment in emergency situations but also to build strong, positive relationships with our students. They are valued members of our community.”

Not every student feels comfortable with armed police officers patrolling their schools, Cook said.

“It’s about our mental health state … it’s about how we feel,” Cook said. “We’re in school with (an) eight hour period (for) five days a week; we should get a say in how comfortable we feel.”