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‘Student-Friendly Staff’ Replacing School Guards in St. Paul

Students strongly support having school resource officers in their buildings. On a recent survey, 97 percent of high school juniors in the St. Paul district said it was a “good idea” to post a police officer in their school.

by Josh Verges, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. / December 4, 2019

(TNS) — St. Paul Public Schools is preparing to replace dozens of contract security guards with student-friendly liaisons trained in racial equity and nonviolent intervention.

The new positions, called school support liaisons, would be tasked with building relationships with students in hopes of resolving conflicts early and keeping kids in class.

The model is being tested at Como Park Senior High, where an educational assistant trained in restorative practices works alongside a staffer known as a community support liaison.

Laura Olson, the district’s director of security and emergency management, said fights and aggression are down since the pair began working with freshmen and sophomores.

“Students are coming to them to resolve conflicts,” Olson told the school board at a meeting Tuesday night.

Later this school year, Olson wants to hire school support liaisons for seven schools and remove the security guards. By next school year, she hopes to have eliminated school-day security altogether, replacing them with at least 35 liaisons.

Those 35 will work with five community support liaisons stationed at Central, Como Park and Johnson high schools and Murray Middle and American Indian Magnet, as well as a districtwide social worker who will respond as needed.

Olson said the main objective for the team is to build relationships with students.

“That is the secret sauce, in my opinion, to preserve that safe schools environment,” she said.

The district will continue to have seven police officers posted in the schools, pending a Dec. 17 school board vote on a new, one-year contract. The district would continue to bear 90 percent of the cost — around $775,000 — with the city covering the rest.

Last year, the school board voted 4-3 to approve the school resource officer contract while urging the district to consider alternatives to having an armed officer in the building all day.

Instead, administrators plan to kick out the security guards.

“In my vision, SROs will always be part of this team,” Olson said, noting the police department agrees with how the district wants the officers to operate in the schools.

Students overwhelmingly support having school resource officers in their buildings. On the latest Minnesota Student Survey, 97 percent of high school juniors in the St. Paul district said it was a “good idea” to post a police officer in their school, district officials said.

In 2016, however, the district’s Student Engagement and Advancement Board — a group of high schoolers appointed by the school board to represent student voice — called for changes in the way police interact with students.

They largely succeeded. That year, student arrests fell to 56 from 129 the year before as the officers were told to quit arresting students for minor crimes and let school staff handle enforcement of district policies.

A year later, there were just five arrests, then 34 and 41 in the last two years.

“We are working very, very hard to make sure that we are diverting as much as possible,” Olson said.

Board member Jeanelle Foster, who voted against the police contract last year, questioned the accuracy of the student survey on Tuesday. The others who opposed the contract, Zuki Ellis and Marny Xiong, were absent from Tuesday’s meeting.

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©2019 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.)

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