HOLLAND, MI – A parent-led group is asking Holland Public Schools to consider removing its police officers from district buildings, arguing the role has a negative impact on students of color.
The group Community Action for Reform and Equity (CARE) is arguing the presence of school resource officers (SROs) contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline” that funnels minority students into the criminal justice system.
CARE is made up of district parents and community members. The coalition is asking the school district to consider reallocating funds used for the officers to focus on creating a positive school environment.
“The initiatives CARE is putting forward are not anti police; this is about promoting the best practices to support our students and schools,” group leaders told MLive in a statement.
“There are clear concerns about the presence of police in schools given our nation’s history of racial injustice and of racially biased police practices, but our primary concern is the best use of public resources for the betterment of the kids in our schools.”
Holland parents Dan Carter, Jill Russell and Chris Theule-VanDam spoke on behalf of the group at a Holland Board of Education meeting last week, where they presented board members with their suggestions to remove officers from buildings.
“A growing body of research on the school-to-prison pipeline in America shows how police officers in schools have a disproportionate, negative impact on kids of color,” the parents wrote in a letter to the school board.
“We are asking Holland Public Schools, as a majority minority school system, to be aware of and respond to this research.”
The letter is signed by around 100 Holland parents, former teachers and community members.
Like many public schools in Michigan and across the county, Holland and other West Michigan schools have had police officers and sheriff’s deputies roaming their campuses for years.
But amid calls for police reform triggered by the death of a George Floyd, there has ben more scrutiny of the use of law enforcement at schools. Floyd, a Black man, died in Minneapolis on May 26, 2020 after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, prompting protests nationwide against police brutality and systemic racism.
Kalamazoo Public Schools has also faced calls to remove school resource officers. A petition was started last June to get the school board to remove them from two high schools. But after months of debate, the school board voted in December to renew the district’s one-year contract with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety and the Kalamazoo Township Police Department.
RELATED: Kalamazoo school board votes to keep police officers in schools
In Holland, the parent-led group pointed to the suspension and expulsion rates at Holland’s middle and high schools, available publicly through state data, questioning why Holland has higher disciplinary rates than other schools.
State data shows Holland’s suspension and expulsion rates are higher than those of neighboring schools, schools with similar student characteristics, and the Michigan average.
“As parents and community members we would like to see the expulsion and suspension rates broken down by race and ethnicity of each of these three schools for the past 5 years,” the group said in its statement to MLive.
“We believe that access to this information and accountability to it will help to resolve issues around systemic racism and work to eliminate the school to prison pipeline.”
But Superintendent Brian Davis said Holland’s police officers are not involved in disciplinary action against students. He said discipline is left to school administrators.
Instead, the role of the district’s police officers is to develop relationships with students, serving as a bridge between school, home and the Holland community, Davis said.
“They help us teach our curriculum, they read with kids, they help to resolve conflicts, they help to find bicycles that are lost or stolen,” Davis explained.
“They just do so much for us, and that’s different than what you will see related to the school-to-prison pipeline, where they’re involved with discipline. Ours don’t do that.”
The school district has two full-time school resource officers – one at Holland Middle School and one at the Holland High. The positions are supported through an agreement between the district and the Holland Department of Public Safety, which Davis said costs the district between $50,000 to 60,000 annually.
The group argued those funds could be better used in a way that positively impacts students.
In their letter, parents suggested three ways the funding spent on school resource officers could be used:
- Training school staff to ensure a safe environment.
- Hiring community intervention workers or behavior interventionists.
- Hiring restorative justice coordinators.
“We have parents from the district who would love to help make this change,” the letter said. “And with the hiring of our new (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) director, Taran McZee, it seems like now is the time to move in this direction.”
Hispanic and Latino students make up just under half of the district’s student population, or 47% of its 3,079 students. Around 10% of the district’s students are African American and 35% are white, state data shows.
Davis said the district has already implemented many of the resources suggested. He said the district provides annual training to staff on restorative justice, and also has many community partnerships that coordinate social and emotional health and counseling for students and their families.
“Oftentimes, the school resource officer is engaged in that work, and helps to share background information that they might know about what’s been happening in the community, or with the family or the relationship that they’ve developed with that young person,” Davis said.
Davis said he thinks the calls from the community group have opened up an opportunity to inform the public about the positive role that officers play at Holland Public Schools.
The superintendent said he is open to reviewing the district’s current policies, because he believes some community members may not fully understand how officers operate within the schools. Davis said he especially wants the public to understand that Holland’s officers don’t discipline students.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to review, to understand what the practices are that do exist, to explore and look at alternative ideas, but I think it begins with a common and shared understanding of what are we currently doing,” he said.
Davis said a group of school officials will share information about Holland’s resource officers at the next school board meeting, as well as topics like what the school-to-prison pipeline is, and how Holland’s suspensions and expulsions have actually decreased over the past several years.
The next school board meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday, April 26, according to the district website.
“There will be an opportunity for our board to hear that, and to ask questions about that, and that’ll be a public meeting where individuals can participate and the public can engage in that,” Davis said.
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