Detroit school district faces calls to eliminate funding for its police force

Protesters gathered outside the Detroit district’s headquarters at the Fisher Building to call for the elimination of funding to district police. (482Forward)

The Detroit school district is under pressure to dismantle its police department, with advocates saying that armed officers create a climate of intimidation.

“When I walk into my school I’m greeted by metal detectors and security guards. I automatically feel like I’ve done something wrong,” said Emily Wilson, a senior at Cass Technical High School in Detroit. “The district has a misguided notion that the district police will keep us safe.”

She said the money should be spent on guidance counselors and building maintenance instead.

That’s why the education advocacy group 482Forward recently launched a campaign for the district to divest in school police. On Monday, dozens of protesters gathered outside the district’s headquarters in the Fisher Building to call for a plan to shift funding from the school police force to guidance counselors, restorative justice programs, and a committee that would create a districtwide “safety plan.” 

The district has its own police department, setting it apart from school districts that contract with local police departments for security services. According to a statement provided to Chalkbeat Tuesday, the district spent $7.5 million on its police department in the 2019-20 school year, and currently employs 55 police officers across its roughly 100 schools.

Protesters said the district should form a committee with community members to develop a safe plan for dismantling the district police department. They also called for the district to release data on spending and misconduct of district police, arguing that police officers in schools don’t support student learning.

Monday marked 18 consecutive days of protests against police violence and systemic anti-Black racism in metro Detroit after a white Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, and sparked an international outcry against racism. That officer has now been charged with second-degree murder.

Earlier this month, Minneapolis Public Schools terminated its contract with the city police department. In Denver, a school board member is calling for the elimination of school police, while a group of Chicago aldermen are expected to propose an ordinance this week to remove police officers from Chicago Public Schools.

“Over the years I’ve seen several incidents where DPSCD police handcuffed and arrested students over minor incidents,” said Heidi West, of her time as a teacher at Western International Academy, during the protest on Monday. “At the same time, we only had one guidance counselor.”

In a response to the campaign, district spokeswoman Chrystal Wilson said having a district police force allows officers to build rapport with students. Chief Ralph Godbee, a former Detroit police chief, currently heads the district’s police department.

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Wilson said district police training is focused on equity, progressive discipline, and de-escalating conflict. The district and the school board are discussing ways to reduce the district’s security budget further.

“The police budget has been reduced by $1 million since the superintendent and school board started their work together. The superintendent and school board will continue to engage the community about this process in the future and will be establishing an oversight board to assist in this process,” Wilson said.

The district is also moving away from hiring contracted security guards. Security guards monitor student activities during school hours and dismissal and are the ones to intervene during in-person conflicts in school. Police officers are dispatched during more intense confrontations and investigate violations of the law, not matters regarding the student code of conduct.

The district police force includes officers, investigators, campus police officers, and is housed in a $5.6 million command center, which opened in 2011. 

Police officers are a common sight in many district schools. The district police department monitors school campuses using surveillance cameras and alarms. They also operate a visitor security clearance system, which requires campus visitors to be checked if they are on the sex offender registry list.

Some parents and teachers feel safer because of those measures, said Angie Reyes, executive director of Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, at the march on Monday. The campaign wants the district to form a committee that would create recommendations for shifting half of the police department’s budget into a districtwide safety plan. The remaining half would be invested in “a districtwide safety plan for police-free schools” by 2021.

“There are a lot of people, parents and teachers who are worried that this will make the schools unsafe,” she said. “We know this is not going to be a simple solution, but that’s why we need everybody’s voices and perspectives at the table.”

The protests against police violence and systemic anti-Black racism are reigniting the debate over the role of police in schools. Researchers have found that the presence of police officers in schools is accompanied by unintentional, negative consequences: higher suspension rates, and expulsions, and more youth of color entering the criminal justice system as a result.

Several students, parents, and teachers flooded the virtual public comment period of a Detroit Financial Review Commission meeting last week to pledge support to defund district police.

“Since we’re increasing the excellence of the schools, we should be investing in that, not the punitive aspect,” said Magda Pescenye, a parent whose child attends the School at Marygrove, during Monday’s financial review commission meeting. 

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“It prepares our children for a path that has nothing to do with education,” said Arlyssa Heard, a 482Forward organizer, speaking of the effects of policing in funneling youth into the school to prison pipeline, the enforcement of severe disciplinary policies that makes it harder for students to return to the classroom.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a new statement, as well as answers to questions about spending for the police department, that the Detroit school district provided Tuesday morning.

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