While in middle school, Mocorah Lewis saw members of the Providence Police Department who were placed within city schools, also known as school resource officers, discipline her classmates.
“When it did come back to fighting, it would have been (broken up) violently by the cop,” she said. Students would “be dragged out and anyone that had recorded it, you (would) be dragged out. So it was a very violent process.”
Lewis is a member of the Providence Student Union, one of the founding organizations of the youth-led Providence Alliance for Student Safety Coalition. Founded in December 2019 by representatives of the PSU, along with students from the Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education and Providence Youth Student Movement, PASS has spent the past 18 months organizing in support of the Counselors Not Cops campaign, a movement to remove SROs from schools. This movement builds on the work PSU started in December 2018.
On Monday, PASS released the PASS Plan for Student Safety, which “addresses how students must be made safer and more successful in school by: (1) removing police officers from Providence Public Schools and (2) making significant investments instead in culturally responsive professionals who will work full time in the schools to support the mental health, emotional well-being and overall success of PPSD students, 90+ percent of whom identify as Black, Indigenous, and students of color.”
According to a Monday press release, the plan used “academic research, policy reports, and data” both from within the state and externally to demonstrate the detrimental impact police officers placed in schools have on students.
While Lewis’ high school does not have any SROs, it does have school counselors. Lewis said that she had gone to these counselors in difficult situations and found this support valuable. “In ninth grade, I talked to a mental health counselor which helped me a lot,” she said. “It was nice just to talk to someone instead of just getting into fights and just having the cops arrest you for that.”
To youth activists in PASS, the dangers SROs present to student safety outweigh any benefits they provide as workers in Providence schools. Demi Egunjobi, a member of the PSU leadership team and a Classical High School freshman, said that SROs contribute to the “present school to prison pipeline.”
“There's just no reason for cops to be patrolling the school. There should be counselors and therapists there to help kids with their needs,” she said. “It just creates this unsafe environment for kids, especially if they've already had bad encounters with police.”
PASS members also believe that SROs unfairly target students of color. “Being half Asian and half Black, I just really don't feel safe around police officers,” said Deijah Prak-Preaster, a youth organizer with ARISE and a Classical High School senior.
“Police officers don't belong in schools, mainly because it's supposed to be a safe place and a safe spot that every student should feel like they are able to excel and be able to be themselves,” she said. “Having SROs in school just makes not only me, but a lot of other students, feel unsafe and feel like they're being treated as criminals and make school feel more (like) a prison.”
Samia Nash, a fellow youth organizer with ARISE and Classical High School senior, echoed Prak-Preaster’s description of the impact of SRO presence on students of color. Policing in schools “doesn't make anybody feel safe” and leaves “Black and brown students” feeling like PPSD thinks that they “aren't able to be trusted,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Providence Police Department declined to comment on this characterization.
Instead of SROs, Nash called for the hiring of professionally trained counselors. “What should be happening is that we have counselors like clinicians, a clinical therapist, psychologists to actually help aid students not only emotionally, but mentally,” she said. “When you have police there, they're not there to talk to you and help you out. We need counselors to have somebody to talk to.”
Counselors Not Cops school walkout and protest
In order to galvanize support for the Counselors Not Cops campaign, PASS held a two-day school walkout on Thursday, April 29 and Friday, April 30. On Thursday, students marched from Classical High School to the PPSD building, the Providence Public Safety Complex and finally the Rhode Island Department of Education. On Friday, students marched from PSU headquarters to the RI State House.
Organizers carried signs, gave speeches and led the crowd in chants such as “We want counselors, not cops!” and “Ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop,” according to video footage of the walkout.
Bhintuna Maharjan, a junior at Classical High School and a member of PSU’s youth leadership team, gave a speech at the event focusing on the need for mental health support staff in schools.
Maharjan recalled discussing during her speech how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a preexisting mental health crisis in teenagers, and her worry that support for mental health would lapse after the pandemic. The solution, she proposed, is hiring mental health counselors to staff schools “even after COVID-19 passes,” she told The Herald.
Lewis also spoke during the march on Friday, sharing the success that the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a network of public schools in Providence and Newport she now attends, has seen in keeping students safe without SROs on campus. “At the Met, we haven’t had a single physical fight since 1998; it’s an amazing, safe school,” she told The Herald. “It's not a scary thing to take SROs out.”
Chanda Womack, executive director of ARISE, said the march happened after years of conversations with the state. “We have been extremely patient,” she said, saying PASS had held meetings with former Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, gaining her support in removing SROs as well as that of Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green.
But after Raimondo’s appointment as commerce secretary, her successor Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee expressed opposition to removing SROs. She claimed that McKee stepped in and stopped Infante-Green from publicly supporting the Counselors Not Cops campaign. The school walkout took place after PASS was unable to make headway with state officials, Womack added.
PASS meets with Gov. Dan McKee
After successfully organizing the two-day school walkout, PASS secured a call with McKee to advocate for its demands to remove SROs on May 13. But despite fruitful conversations with the previous administration, Prak-Preaster, who attended the virtual meeting, said it was “atrocious.”
“I never really thought someone would be so openly racist in a group full of over 20 something Black and brown people,” she said, referring to McKee’s conduct during the meeting.
Prak-Preaster said that she shared the story of a traumatizing interaction she had had with an SRO in which the SRO failed to adequately help her protect her suicidal friend. She said that after telling McKee the story, “(the governor) and his team still pushed … to have SROs in the building, and no matter how many times a youth member … tried to bring up data, bring up anything, bring up personal experience, (McKee and his team) always would push it down and try to belittle our experiences and belittle what Black and brown kids are really going through.”
“It seemed like the meeting happened because they just wanted to have a meeting, not because they wanted to listen,” Nancy Xiong, lead organizer at ARISE said, describing the meeting as “horrible.” Like Prak-Preaster, she expressed frustration that she had provided data prior to the meeting reflecting negatively on SROs and their impact that she suspected McKee “didn’t review.”
Xiong questioned McKee on the source of his knowledge on the PPSD. “Who is he really talking to and what schools is he going into?” she recalled asking him. “Like is he going to Providence? Because other schools who are more affluent and have resources, of course, they're going to agree that SROs have helped them.”
Dayanara Feliz, a youth organizer with ARISE and a Highlander Charter School junior who went to a Providence middle school with SROs, said that McKee evaded addressing their concerns, “(answering) the question without answering the question.”
“The Governor felt he had a very informative meeting with students last month in which he heard testimony surrounding their experiences as well as their concerns for their safety in schools,” wrote Alana O’Hare, the governor’s press secretary, in an email to The Herald in response to a request for comment on each of the characterizations made of McKee and his conduct.
“The Governor and his team have listened to students’ needs, and discussed adding resources that they expressed need for, such as community specialist positions to provide mental health and other support,” she added. “He appreciates students’ voices as an important one on decisions that impact their future in schools.”
O’Hare continued that McKee believes there is opportunity for positive collaboration between “communities and law enforcement.”
“The governor and his administration have met with community members on all sides of this issue and will continue to focus on equity and safety as they engage students, families, teachers, SROs and others on this subject,” she wrote.
McKee’s behavior, according to PASS activists, reflects a larger culture of ignoring student voices — one they believe is perpetuated by RI education leaders, including Infante-Green. Prak-Preaster, Xiong and Nash all accused Infante-Green of not showing up to meetings with students and not following up with sufficient urgency.
“The engagement around SROs started last year with direct conversation with youth, particularly during RIDE’s Racial Justice conversations in the fall,” Victor Morente, director of communications for RIDE, wrote in an email to The Herald on behalf of the Commissioner’s office. “Since then, RIDE has met with advocates numerous times and the agency continues to engage with the Providence community including students, teachers and families.”
According to Morente, RIDE has invested in systems of support in schools by “budgeting for 18 guidance counselors for Providence elementary schools and 36 community liaisons to support student achievement and social emotional learning,” he wrote. “We know that students are passionate about this and we will continue to work with them, the PPSD team and the governor to ensure student safety and success in our schools.”
Looking ahead, the youth activists plan to continue organizing. “Just because we heard ‘no’ once doesn't mean we're stopping,” Nash said. “We're not going to ever stop in the future until we get what we deserve, which is removing these cops off of campuses and shifting our budget and our money toward … having counselors.”
A positive sign for PASS and the Counselors Not Cops campaign came on Thursday from the Providence School Board, which asked the state to remove SROs from PPSD. But as a result of the state’s takeover of the district, the school board does not have the power to remove SROs itself — only the state has that ability.