Editor's note: This story came about through a partnership between the Cap Times, Local Voices Network and a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism class. Students analyzed the Cap Times People’s Agenda and chose to report on non-police solutions for community issues, one of the topics readers identified as a priority. Specifically, the student journalists explored what safety will look like without police officers in Madison schools.
On weekday afternoons, Eddie “Coach” Singleton, a security assistant at Cherokee Middle School on Madison’s west side, can be found sitting at his computer, watching as students trickle into a virtual classroom established for their lunch period. Singleton spends the hour getting to know students, playing games and building community.
Since schools have been virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions, he and other school security assistants, or SSAs, have used time they typically would have spent surveying school grounds or bouncing from room to room as an opportunity to build relationships with students by offering a virtual “open door” during downtime periods. There has been such a large turnout for the SSA-led lunch sessions, Cherokee had to recruit staff to split up and take shifts.
“There are a lot of kids that are willing to hang out virtually during lunch, so that's very telling,” Singleton said. “Some kids just light up like a light bulb. There's an eighth grade group and a seventh grade group where I barely get a word in because they're just so happy to tell me all these things that are going on.”
Building these relationships has become more important than ever. According to Savion Castro, a Madison School Board member, schools will rely more heavily on security staff now that police officers who, until this summer, patrolled the halls of Madison high schools, are out of the picture.
In June, the Madison Metropolitan School District ended its contract with the Madison Police Department in the wake of increasing demands for police-free schools from community activists, following the killings of Black individuals like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement.
Previously, the high schools had both SSAs and a dedicated school resource officer from MPD at East, La Follette, Memorial and West. Madison middle schools only had SSAs, and elementary schools had neither.
This year has been one of MMSD’s most tumultuous, with school shifting online abruptly due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a rocky search for a new superintendent. At the same time, educators rallied support for two referenda, which passed earlier this month.
But one of the pressing questions facing the second-largest district in Wisconsin still awaits an answer: what will school safety look like without police officers in the building?
With the possibility of MMSD schools returning to in-person instruction by February 2021, the School Board hopes to address the gap left by SROs with increased responsibilities of SSAs like Singleton and a bolstered programs budget. Working with education specialists as well as community organizations like Freedom Inc., the School Board will consider everything from who is responsible for safety to how kids can get the resources they need.
Singleton described his job as similar to that of an SRO.
“The only difference that I see (between SSAs and school resource officers) is the ability to carry a gun,” Singleton said.
Singleton described how normal it is for an SSA working at a MMSD middle school to deal with high-pressure situations. He said he has addressed everything from parents under the influence coming to pick up students, to coordinating with paramedics and police in dangerous situations.
Not only are SSAs crucial for safety within MMSD, but also in assisting with personal matters like providing a safe space at school or even a snack, Castro said.
“The work they’re doing is indispensable,” Castro said. “Their offices are often used as a safe space for a lot of students.”
Security staff acknowledge importance, lament pay
But SSAs and security personnel within schools can feel overwhelmed by their responsibilities, underrecognized and underpaid. Those interviewed voiced concerns about the increased responsibilities paired with a lack of what they see as fair compensation.
According to Singleton, many SSAs felt resource officers were getting paid double to do the same job. While security assistants and resource officers had similar responsibilities, resource officers were police officers employed by MPD, while SSAs are employed and paid by the school district.
“Just treat us how you were treating everybody else that had the same job description,” Singleton said. “I believe that MMSD is moving in a direction of taking school security assistants more seriously, as far as job description and development. But I also want them to understand how serious it is that the compensation level needs to jump up, considering SROs were making a significant more amount than SSAs.”
Tut'ankhamun Assad, leader of the Outreach and Engagement Team at La Follette High School — the rebranded security team — agreed that such staff at MMSD schools should be paid better.
MMSD will issue a 10% raise this year, but Assad said they hadn’t seen a raise in the last five years.
At the time of removal from schools, SROs were paid $38.50 an hour, per MPD records custodian Julie Laundrie.
“We have the most important job on Earth: the spiritual, mental and physical safety of tomorrow's future. We're the first and last things they see in the building and we get compensated terribly,” Assad said. “I make $18.21 an hour. I do this because I love children but guess what? I still want to eat.”
The right move?
Freedom Inc., a local organization whose “youth squad” was prominent in the push for police-free schools, will work with MMSD to re-plan what safety and security will look like. M. Adams, co-executive director of Freedom Inc., described the ending of MMSD’s contract with MPD as a “victory” and hopes to help the district rethink what safety and justice means, especially for students of color.
Ananda Mirilli, a School Board member, described Freedom Inc. as one of the district’s partners in figuring out what to do going forward and said a Freedom Inc. representative is currently serving on the district’s safety/security Ad Hoc committee.
Mirilli said the concept of safety, both in and out of schools, differs based on race.
“In this country we have created a framework to say who gets to be safe, and so it's important to also say... what does safe look like for Black people and other people?” Mirilli said. “Education inherently says that we build community, that we learn together, and we haven't experienced that yet, and I believe we can.”
Castro said the district hopes to shift “from punitive and exclusionary punishment for students into more restorative justice, holistic approaches to student behavior.”
While MPD will no longer fill the SRO capacity, Singleton said MMSD will still work with MPD to preserve safety in schools, calling the relationship a “partnership.”
“In my experience, there was never any awkwardness or resentment with the police when it was time to work together, it was just where we were solving something as a team,” Singleton said.
Assad said students built relationships with the officers and removing SROs from the schools was a performative action. Assad and Singleton both described former La Follette SRO Roderick Johnson as a positive force in the school.
“He would be what you considered like a pillar of the community out there at Madison La Follette as an SRO,” Singleton said. “I know that he'll be missed in the building. He made some kids smile every day, he made some people feel safe every day.”
Wayne Strong, a retired Madison police lieutenant who served as an SRO at West High School, said while students of color may feel safer without the presence of law enforcement, now police responding to calls from the schools won’t have any prior relationship with the students. Interactions between students and police that are less personal could result in harsher interactions, he said.
“Now, when the police are called to the school, they’ll take care of it in a way that isn’t as personal because they don’t know the students,” Strong said.
Strong worked as an SRO during the 1990s when the program was first implemented. At its start, he said, the program was meant to be a resource for students to help problem-solve and gain a more positive relationship with law enforcement. But over the years, the resource officers began giving more and more citations — more than what Strong thought was necessary.
“The intent of the program changed from what I thought it should be,” he said.
Over the previous four years, the number of SRO arrests involving juveniles decreased significantly, but racial disparities remained. In 2019-20, MMSD recorded 84 total interactions between students and MPD officers. Of those interactions, 28 resulted in an arrest, 17 in a citation, and the remaining 39 into other resolutions, like restorative justice.
Sixty percent of interactions were with Black students, as well as 64% of the resulting arrests and 82% of resulting citations. Seventy-eight percent of arrests were of low-income students, and 64% were receiving special education.
Debating the way forward
Other school districts are facing the same challenge, including in Minneapolis, the epicenter of the reignited issue. After swiftly removing police officers from its schools’ hallways, the school district created 11 new positions referred to as “Public Safety Support Specialists,” according to reporting from The 74.
While more than half of the 24 finalists for those positions have experience in education and work with the district in some way, The 74 reported that 14 have experience as police officers, corrections officials or private security guards.
The move has caught backlash from activists and parents, as well as the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. Through a Facebook post, the district admitted the positions were filled in an “accelerated” process in order to train new hires before the start of the school year.
While the district would have saved $1.1 million after a year without the Minneapolis Police Department contract, City Pages reported that most of those funds, up to $944,000, would be used to hire the public safety support specialists.
For Assad, MMSD’s move was “like putting a Band-Aid on cancer.” He noted that while police are a problem, “they’re a symptom, not the disease.”
Beyond improving the pay for Outreach and Engagement, or SSA staff, who bolster the school community and support students, Assad said the school needs more counselors available to students.
“Get more mental health help in the buildings — there should not be a school psychologist with 60 cases on a caseload,” Assad said. “Yet, we're saying we're helping kids.”
At MMSD high schools, counselors only narrowly outnumber SSAs. According to the staff directory, each high school has between five to seven counselors and four SSAs. Each high school has two occupational therapists, except for West High, which has one. High schools also have between two to three school psychologists and two to three social workers. High school enrollment in MMSD ranges from 1,580 students at La Follette to 2,245 students at Memorial.
Each MMSD middle school has a single counselor, except for Hamilton, which has two. Each middle and elementary school has at least one psychologist.
Strong called for MMSD to expand community partnerships so that more volunteers are made available to serve as mentors and role models, particularly for students of color who have historically had the highest rates of out of school suspensions and lowest graduation rates.
Assad, while stating he held “deep respect” for Freedom Inc. and its mission, said the school district should not turn to outside sources for their security or support plans.
SSAs’ daily experiences with the students, Assad said, are why the School Board ought to listen to them.
“The last time I checked, they (Freedom Inc.) don't work in a school, but the school system is so dismissive of us as Black people,” Assad said. “They decide that people who don't work in our building and who don't work with children every day, all of a sudden should be designing what school safety looks like while they ignore the people who are responsible for school safety and security.”
The School Board hopes to bolster its mental health and restorative justice services with a $33 million increase to its programs budget over the next four years. The spending hike comes as part of the Future Ready referenda plan, which voters overwhelmingly approved on Nov. 3.
The Behavioral Health in Schools program plans to bring behavioral clinicians to 16 MMSD campuses, including 11 high schools and five elementary schools, who will help students with mental health concerns.
This mental health and community-based approach is intended to serve as the groundwork for police-free schools in Madison.
Adams said these policies are where Freedom Inc. and the School Board’s focus will lie.
“When we think about transformative justice, when cops are not there, we think of a world of possibility. It's based on restoration, it's based on healing, it's based on becoming different, or transforming a situation, not just punishment,” Adams said.
Strong, who has been an advocate for racial justice during his time with the district, including a few unsuccessful runs for a School Board seat, said reducing racial disparities is the crux of the issue at MMSD.
“I’ve never met a Black family, including my own, who hasn’t had an issue getting through MMSD without being treated differently,” Strong said.
This means that the non-police security officers, like Singleton, may have to play several roles, from disciplinarian to social workers. Singleton understands that once the students return to his Cherokee hallways, their safety is in his hands, and when police get called to the school, there will be a higher chance of those kids entering the school-to-prison pipeline.
“Keeping our kids in school must be a top priority by exploring other strategies for punishments other than removal from the school environment, where positive behaviors can be learned and everyone can be kept safe,” Strong said.