The event room in Papadoo’s Soul Food restaurant is particularly busy on Nov. 2 in the afternoon. With plastic forks and napkins in hand, community members stand in line as they eagerly wait to load up their paper plates with fried chicken and fruit salad.
Once seated at their tables, attendees of the event launch into small talk about school and work life. However, that’s not what they are there to discuss. They are there to brainstorm ways to keep their children safe from violence happening in their schools and neighborhoods.
Event organizer Kandas Holmes-Barnes is worried for her four children. Her oldest daughter was arrested last January for fighting another student at Smithton Middle School.
Holmes-Barnes says her daughter was never in the fight to begin with. Yet her daughter spent the night at the Juvenile Justice Center after staff members misidentified her as the student instigating the fight.
The charge against the student was dropped. Shortly after, Holmes-Barnes filed a discrimination complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights against Smithon Middle School staff in May.
But Holmes-Barnes is still worried about her daughter and other children of color.
“Not only are we afraid, but we're allowing the school system to make our children into examples of the prison pipeline system,” Holmes-Barnes said in her welcoming speech.
That pipeline involves students from disadvantaged backgrounds being exposed to the criminal justice system early on, mostly through contact with law enforcement. Experts say this phenomenon involves criminalizing young people’s behavior through disciplinary action.
Columbia Public Schools has law enforcement, and that comes in the form of school resource officers, trained city police officers who are posted inside school buildings. There are three resource officers for three highschools and one officer who works inside Smithton and Oakland Middle schools.
Part of their duties within the schools is to monitor safety and respond to various incidents. There were 94 arrests made at the district’s middle schools last school year. Seventy of those arrests were made by school resource officers.
A complex system
Law enforcement across the nation are arresting students straight from their classrooms.
Black students “represented 15% of the total student enrollment and 31% of students who referred to law enforcement” nationally in the 2015-2016 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights.
On the other hand, white students represented “49% of the total student enrollment, and accounted for 36% of those referred to law enforcement.”
Lauren Arend is a professor of early childhood education at MU. She said it is crucial to keep children in school, but having more officers in schools can promote a punishment model where students are sent out of the classroom whenever they misbehave.
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union analyzed 2015-2016 data from Columbia Public Schools and says black students were almost five times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
“There's lots of ways we're asking children to leave the classroom throughout the day,” Arend said. “When we're seeing certain groups of children asked to leave the classroom more than others, we have concern if we’re providing an equitable educational experience for all the kids in our schools.”
Arend said a clash in training that teachers and officers receive is at the heart of this punishment model.
“We have institutions that focus on the preparation of teachers and school leaders, which take into account theories of learning, ways of building relationships with children, appropriate responses to children when they are upset or non-compliant, de-escalation strategies,” Arend said. “Those all are part of pedagogy of teaching. And when we think about what police officers are trained in, it's an entirely different field.”
Ayona Grissom is the mother of a student who was arrested in Smithton Middle School last April. The student was arrested by a school resource officer after a fight in the girls bathroom. Grissom said her daughter was a victim of bullying.
“I accept the fact that she shouldn't be fighting in school,” Grissom said. “But what I don't accept is that she is not being heard.”
Grissom and her daughter found themselves in juvenile court. A juvenile officer conducted a social investigation that outlines the student’s behavior and home life. Grissom said understanding the legal system is challenging and finding legal help has been expensive.
The student was expected to attend programing, but her mother says her daughter won’t attend because she’s not a bully. The next court date is an April check-in. She said she’s fearful for her daughter’s future.
“I don’t trust CPS,” Grissom said. “I don’t trust the law system at all, because you guys have allowed these people to hurt my daughter in so many ways. Instead of trying to help defend her, you were against her.”
There is a 2017 memorandum of understanding between the school district, the police department, the sheriff’s office and the juvenile court that states some offenses by students can be dealt with outside of the juvenile justice system.
Superintendent Peter Stiepleman said this is to limit the number of points a student may get on their record.
“Once you get to a certain number of points that's where the really bad things happen in terms of being removed from your family or being admitted into the juvenile center or things like that,” Stiepleman said. “Any opportunity that we have to eliminate that possibility is something we should pursue. ”
In an Oct. 6 report to the Board of Education, Chief Equity Officer Carla London says she met with others to talk about several topics including a “potential diversion from entry into the juvenile justice system.”
Despite these efforts, Grissom said she feels like her daughter is being treated like a criminal.
The role of an officer
Columbia isn’t the only district with law enforcement in its schools. Sixty five percent of secondary schools reported the presence of “any sworn law enforcement officer” in the 2015-2016 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the 2005-2006 school year, 58% of secondary schools reported the presence of “any sworn law enforcement officer.”
Columbia Schools spokesperson Michelle Baumstark and Stiepleman told KBIA that officers are there to build relationships with students. Along with being present during the school days, officers do things like cheer on students at football games or give roses to performers in school plays.
“The police chief has a real vision for what is considered community policing, built on relationships, not just on enforcement of law,” Stiepleman said. “The school resource officers are supposed to be... about really integrating themselves into the school.”
But during the process of integrating themselves into the school, these officers are also arresting students.
Columbia City Council discussed a cost-sharing agreement with Columbia Public Schools for school resource officers in October. The agreement outlines that CPS cover 55% of the officers’ salaries and benefits.
However, that’s not what community members were particularly concerned with.
Mayor Brian Treece said that after visiting the Jefferson City Schools, a city with less people but more SROs than in Columbia, the officers at CPS may be “spread too thin.” Because of this, he’s hoping to eventually increase the number of active school resource officers in Columbia.
“Are our school resource officers spread too thin and vice versa?,” Treece said. “Are the ones we have too complacent in the schools that they’re in? Ultimately we want more school officers, I just don't know how we get there yet.”
Baumstark said officers have been a part of Columbia Schools for “many, many years.” But, the police department made the decision to staff those two specific middle schools.
What happens next
President of local activist group Race Matters, Friends Traci Wilson-Kleekamp said the district is disproportionately targeting black students when it comes to discipline and arrest. She asked for more transparency from the district at the October city council meeting.
“We were getting in an entanglement with the school district as we were wanting them to apply equity and restorative practices for how they manage students,” Wilson-Kleekamp said. “We asked them for data to show us that the practices that they're doing right now, the training actually are effective because they have a problem with suspensions and arrests for black children.”
Baumstark said school resource officers are required to go through a series of equity trainings at the National Conference for Community and Justice in St. Louis. This training is supposed to help staff recognize their implicit biases when working with students. But some, like Wilson-Kleekamp, argue that training doesn’t go far enough.
Verna Laboy is a longtime advocate and sits on the board of the Family Access Center of Excellence, which helps address behavioral and mental health needs for young people and their families in Boone County. Laboy wants to divert certain referrals away from the JJC and towards FACE.
“Our children are hurting and dealing with struggles that are overwhelming, so we're expecting a lot of our teachers,” Laboy said. “To be trauma-informed and graceful and be careful to check their biases and they need classroom management.”
Laboy said part of that training should be done by universities when training new educators. As for the police department, she said it takes time for change, but she said CPD Police Chief Geoff Jones is working to have more equitable practices.
“There’s been some really bad situations happening recently and I don’t want children, especially children of color, turned off from learning and growing and thriving, not just surviving,” Laboy said.
Laboy said that students of color should have positive role models that look like them in their schools too. But she said it takes a village to raise a child so parent cooperation is also needed in making sure all children are safe and receiving an equitable education.
“It's a challenge,” Laboy said. “That's why parents have to sacrifice their time to really be connected with their kids because we're losing. We're losing our children, especially minority children. I want families and children to feel like they have a voice. And I want them to be able to articulate their needs in a healthy way.”
At the Papadoo’s Soul Food event, Kandas Holmes-Barnes echoed the same sentiment.
“I know in order to raise a family, it takes a village,” Holmes-Barnes said.
Advocate Lara Wakefield helped parents fill out public comment forms for the next Columbia Public Schools board meeting. She is also helping parents fill out Office for Civil Rights Complaints, all in the hopes that their children will be safe when they walk through the school doors every morning.
“So I wanted this event to take the time out, for everybody to come together in the community, to come with ideas, brainstorm how we can make this community safer,” Holmes-Barnes said. “How can we take up ourselves, take up our community, set goals for our children, do the right things for our children.”
As for Columbia Schools, Superintendent Stiepleman said he understands there are concerns about law enforcement in schools. He said relationship building involves officers guest speaking or even mentoring students who might want to become officers someday. Eventually, he wants to have “locally-educated law enforcement.”
“I understand where there may be concern in terms of law enforcement being in our schools,” Stiepleman said. “But if you're thoughtful about it, then it can be a good decision.”
Sam Manas contributed to this report.