Parents, activists and community members gathered Saturday on Zoom to discuss policing in public schools.
Redefining Safety: A Community Town Hall was hosted by CoMo Coalition for Justice. Discussions focused on the role of school resources officers and ways that role could be restructured. Along with members of the community, Columbia School Board members were in attendance to answer questions.
The event opened with personal testimonies. During this time, individuals shared their experiences with SROs. Columbia Public Schools graduate Olivia Johnson spoke about her positive experiences, stating that they helped her deal with trauma.
"In high school, after I had lost a friend to gun violence, I went to school and [SRO Keisha Edwards] was a shoulder to cry on," she said. "I was never close with any counselors or teachers or anybody. I couldn’t even name half of my school teachers from when I went to high school."
However, not all stories were as positive. Parent Kandas Holmes-Barnes shared the negative experiences she and her children have had with both SROs and administration at the school her children attend — especially their response to fights and reporting information.
"When I was in school, we never had police officers unless there was something severe," Holmes-Barnes said. "I don’t feel like having police officers is going to help the situation when they aren’t getting the right information. They’re falsifying information, teachers are falsifying information and getting kids locked up and put in juvenile detention centers. And it’s not just the CPD, it’s the teachers too."
During the meeting, School Board members Chris Horn and David Seamon spoke to the disproportionate rate at which students of color are impacted by policing in schools.
"We know that when SROs are in a school setting, Black and Brown students are more likely to be harassed, detained, expelled, suspended and arrested. That’s something that we have to keep in mind," Seamon said.
Horn also spoke to the importance of SROs, teachers and members of administration building relationships with students to ensure their safety and comfort.
"We’ve got to create safe spaces for all of our kids," Horn said.
Attendees also discussed alternatives to SROs, some suggesting their complete removal .
"If schools are going to delegate their disciplinary responsibilities to SROs, then it is an active push to the school-to-prison pipeline," Nikki McGruder, director of the Inclusive Impact Institute, said.
Other attendees, however, advocated for increased training.
"They need to not just throw a police officer in school," Johnson said. "They need to be specially trained for schools to be that extra comfort."
A public comment read by Brittany Fatoma suggested students and parents should help choose SROs by holding interview panels.
"If (students and parents) get a bad vibe off someone or feel intimidated, they are going to tell you," it read.
Seamon said it is an interesting idea, but maybe not that practical because it is hard to decide an acceptable number for those panels.
For those who missed the town hall, a recording can be found on the Faith Voices for Columbia Facebook page.