CRCSD to ‘act with urgency’ on racial disparities in how students are treated by school police officers

People in Cedar Rapids rallied against systemic racism and oppression on Friday, July 3. — Michael Schodin/Little Village

The Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD) is reexamining its use of school resource officers after recent data showed Black students are six times more likely than white students to have a complaint filed against them.

The data, which spans five school years from 2015 to 2020, is from the state’s Department of Human Rights and was presented to CRCSD’s Board of Education on Monday. Additional information shared during Monday’s presentation included the district’s history assigning law enforcement officers to schools — commonly referred to as school resource officers (SROs) — and student responses to a survey conducted by the Black Student Unions.

“Our purpose tonight of our presentation is to share current data around the use of SROs in our system,” Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said. “We have also acknowledged that we will have an updated plan before the start of the ’21-’22 school year, but this does not mean that we are fully removing SROs. But it does mean we’ll be operating differently, and we don’t have those details identified yet. We’re working through those currently. We are listening, we’re learning, we’re collecting and analyzing data, and we will make those decisions in the future.”

About 45 percent of school districts in the country have SROs, Kooiker said. Locally, Linn-Mar Community School District and College Community School District also utilize them, according to Kooiker.

There are seven SROs within the CRCSD. The district’s SROs are law enforcement officers who receive 40 hours of specialized training from the National Association of School Resource Officers, Kooiker said.

Four of the officers are at Jefferson, Washington, Kennedy and Metro high schools. One officer is at the Polk Alternative Education Center, and the other two are at McKinley and Roosevelt middle schools. Six of the officers are white, according to Kooiker.

Kooiker said there was “no large culminating event” that led to the start of the SRO program in the district. Instead, there was a principal “with a desire that had been in buildings previously that had SROs and thought it was beneficial.”

The first SRO was placed in Jefferson High School in January 2010 as part of a pilot program. A year later, in January 2011, SROs were added to Washington and Kennedy. The officer at Polk was added in 2015, and officers at McKinley and Roosevelt were added in 2016. The most recent SRO was added to Metro High School in 2018.

“It should also be noted that the two middle schools that have been added to the SRO program have the highest population of Black students,” Chanelle Thomas said during the meeting. Thomas was a counselor at Franklin Middle School this past year and assisted Kooiker with the presentation.

CRCSD Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker answered questions from school board members about the district’s school resource officer program. — screengrab

Criminal complaints for incidents in Cedar Rapids schools increased by 23 percent over the five-year period starting in 2015. Kooiker said it is important to know that research shows Black and white students misbehave at similar rates.

Black students made up 61.2 percent of all the alleged criminal offenses reported by SROs in Cedar Rapids schools during the five-year time period. Between the 2015-16 and 2019-20 school years, criminal complaints citing Black students increased 50 percent, while criminal complaints for white students decreased by 6.1 percent.

During the 2019-20 school year alone, Black students comprised 69 percent of complaints despite being only 20 percent of the school population. White students were 29 percent of complaints and 62 percent of the population during the same school year.

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“You can see that there’s a pattern,” Kooiker said about the data looking at the percent of complaints versus population.

During the three school years for which the data was broken down, Black students had a higher risk than white students of being the subject of a criminal complaint filed by an SRO. That risk was 4.86 times, 4.1 times and 6.24 times in 2017-18, 2018-19 and 2019-20, respectively.

“We are owning the data alongside the Cedar Rapids Police Department and knowing we need to make some improvements,” Kooiker said.

Thomas said oversight of the contract that employs school resource officers “has been lacking” but added that “oversight is now in place.”

CRCSD has an agreement with the city of Cedar Rapids for the SRO program. The Gazette reported that the last contract was approved by the school board on April 27, 2020, and costs $1,905,198 over two years.

The two-year contract ends on June 30, 2022, but the district or police department are allowed to end the contract with a 30-day written notice, according to the Gazette.

The oversight that is now in place includes monthly reports from CRPD, as well as plans for school principals to review the data and sit down with the officers at their schools once a month to review the data, Kooiker said.

Sisters Raafa and Rahma Elsheikh shared a list of Black Lives Matter demands with the school board last July. They called for the removal of SROs as part of their demands.

Rahma and Raafa Elsheikh read a poem during an event organized by the Advocates for Social Justice on July 18, 2020. The sisters also read a poem during a protest in June. — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

The twin sisters graduated from Kennedy High School in May, and current students are continuing to work for racial justice. Gentine Nzpyikorera and Wilsee Kollie, along with other students who are part of the Black Student Unions in the district, conducted a survey to get students’ opinions on having officers in the schools. The survey was given to all students in buildings with school resource officers.

A total of 573 students responded to the survey. The majority of the responses, 83 percent, were from high school students. The remaining 17 percent were responses from middle school students.

The survey asked three main yes-or-no questions:

• Do you feel SROs are needed in our schools?

• Have you witnessed a difference in how SROs discipline students of color versus white students?

• Have you witnessed SROs effectively prevent violence in schools?

Results from the student survey conducted by Black Student Unions within the Cedar Rapids Community School District — screengrab

Kollie shared that 40 percent of Black students have witnessed a difference in how school resource officers discipline students of color compared to white students. Nineteen percent of white students and 32 percent of students of color who responded to the survey also said they have seen a difference.

As part of its next steps, CRCSD is seeking feedback from parents, staff and community members about the school resource officer program through an online survey and listening sessions that will be held next week.

The in-person listening and feedback sessions will take place on Monday and Tuesday. Monday’s hour-long session will be at the Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy and begin at 7 p.m. The session on Tuesday will be at McKinley STEAM Academy and also begin at 7 p.m.

The survey will be open until 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

Kooiker also said the CRPD will have a presentation for the school board during its July 12 meeting.

“Our next step is to act with urgency, so working collaboratively to create a revised plan to ensure schools are a place where all students can learn and thrive and make sure we’re providing systems of support that won’t perpetuate more harm,” Kooiker said.