The Milwaukee Public Schools canceled its contract with the city police department in June 2020, but the policy change has not stopped staff from summoning officers to schools.
In the first two months of the current school year, administrators at Milwaukee high schools called police more than 200 times, ABC affiliate station WISN reported. Some city leaders have suggested the district reconsider and bring officers back to patrol campuses.
It’s part of a trend where districts that dumped school police after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 are reversing or re-examining those decisions or adding security measures that mirror police presence.
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In Pomona, California, a shooting near a school prompted the district to bring back school resource officers about four months after defunding them. In Denver, the school system beefed up its security staff with armed officers who can ticket students for minor infractions. In Des Moines, Iowa, parents are urging school board members to bring back police despite evidence that Black students are disproportionately arrested in schools.
When deciding to end its contract with the city police, Milwaukee, like other school districts across the nation, tried to balance two truths: Racial bias in school policing can have severe consequences for students. But there are times when police are needed on school campuses.
Black, Latino and Native American students in the Milwaukee schools are disproportionately referred to law enforcement, making up 94% of referrals. Those student groups comprise less than 80% of the overall student population. School-based law enforcement referrals may lead to arrests and criminal charges or citations that can require students to appear in court.
Leaders Igniting Transformation, a nonprofit focused on organizing Milwaukee-area high school and college students across Wisconsin to advocate for racial, gender and economic justice, pushed to get officers out of schools well before the school district canceled its contracts. The district still employs uniformed security staff.
“When you put police in schools, it’s only going to lead to more arrests,” said Jasmine Roberson, a Leaders Igniting Transformation organizer who works with youth in Milwaukee. “You go looking for something, and you’re going to find it — more arrests, more tickets, more police interactions.”
The Milwaukee Public Schools did not respond to requests for comment.
A nationwide Center for Public Integrity investigation on school policing revealed that public schools in Wisconsin refer students to law enforcement at twice the national rate.
Our reporting partners at Madison365 and Wisconsin Watch wrote about how schools there were more likely to refer Native students to law enforcement than any other state. And the referral rate for Black students was the fifth-highest in the nation.
Roberson and Leaders Igniting Transformation student members Kamyia Johnson, Nehavey Northern and Susej Paura-Martinez discussed the debate around school policing in an interview with Public Integrity.
*This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Should the Milwaukee Public Schools reconsider its decision to remove school resource officers from campuses?
Instead of spending money on police officers, we should hire more tutors, anger management therapists, people that will help kids not be angry. Police officers make the kids angry. So I feel we should hire more people that will help us, not police officers.
We’re students. We should be viewed as that, instead of having the police come in with their guns and everything. That’s very scary. We’re teenagers, and we shouldn’t be treated this way. What really are the benefits of having police inside children’s schools? I can’t think of any, but I do have trouble thinking of an alternative to it.
Coming fresh out of middle school into high school, I see all these [police] officers and safety [officers]. If we treat the students as criminals, then that’s how they’re going to behave. We shouldn’t treat the students like they’re criminals. We should treat them like they’re students.
Q: What can the district do to ensure student safety?
I feel students deserve, really deserve to feel safe and not feel they’re being harmed. Me, I go to school thinking I’m going to be so safe. If I see a police officer, I just feel like, “Dang, I thought I was in a safe environment.”
Police bring fear into the children, the Black children in our school buildings. There should be more tutors, not police officers. I feel we shouldn’t invest our money, millions of dollars into police officers when they’re not even going to do [anything] but make it worse.
I should be able to walk, go to the bathroom, and not get questioned. There’s this man who walks through our hallways, yelling, saying, “Oh, well, if you’re in the hallway, you’re going to get suspended.” And it’s kind of like, “I did not leave middle school for this.”
Q: What is the security presence at your school? Do you see police on campus?
I have lots of safety [officers] in my school. Every time you turn a corner, there is one right there, and sometimes it can be overwhelming.
I never attended school with police in it, but recently there were a couple of police officers in my school because of [an incident]. I felt it was too much. It was more that Black kids were scared and not protected.
Kamyia is from a school that has a metal detector at the front door, all of the doors. When I’m in their school, I see a new safety officer every 10 seconds. She’s in a school that is really heavily policed outside of actually having police specifically. She’s a freshman. She’s not used to that. So, she’s coming from a place of, “I already feel policed with just safety [officers] and they’re unarmed. Why would I feel any safer when people are armed and they can arrest me in the school?”