Student activists respond to suggestion that police return to Milwaukee schools
Student activist groups “welcome dialogue” with Milwaukee mayor
The Milwaukee Police Administration Building downtown. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Deploying more police officers to Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) is again on the table. Nearly three years ago, student activists worked to sever the school district’s ties to the police department. Now, with police calls to several MPS schools increasing, the mayor’s office has signaled that officers could return to some schools.
The nod came from a spokesperson for Mayor Cavalier Johnson in a recent Badger Institute report. It is likely, the spokesman said, “that Milwaukee police officers will have a renewed presence in some Milwaukee Public Schools in 2023.” Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) officers haven’t been stationed inside the schools since 2016. They were, however, allowed by the school board to patrol the grounds outside school buildings until June 2020.
Student activists, among them the group Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), organized in the wake of George Floyd’s murder to get the district to cancel its contract with MPD. It was one of the earliest victories of Milwaukee’s Black LIves Matter protest movement, which kept up a continual public presence for over 400 days after Floyd’s death.
Cendi Tena, co-executive director of LIT, was dismayed to hear of plans to return officers to MPS. “After years of organizing, we were successful in leading the campaign to terminate the contracts between the Milwaukee Public Schools and the Milwaukee Police Department in June of 2020,” Tena said in a statement to Wisconsin Examiner. “The lived experience of BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] students and the data alone have proven that the presence and involvement of police in schools simply escalates situations and harms both BIPOC and students with disabilities.”
According to a 2021 report by the Center for Public Integrity, Wisconsin students were referred to police at twice the national rate from 2007 to 2018. Nine Wisconsin students out of every 1,000 were referred to police by public school staff, compared to the national rate of 4.5. The data also showed that Black, Native American, Latino, and children with disabilities were most often referred to police.
Last year, a report by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI), found that students with disabilities were subjected to restraints and seclusion at higher rates than their peers. The incidents covered in the report occurred during the 2020-21 school year. Earlier in 2022, an off-duty Kenosha police officer serving as a school security guard put his knee on the neck of a 12-year-old girl as he tried to break up a fight.
Republican lawmakers are introducing legislation to increase data collection of school incidents. Assembly Bill 53 would kick in during the 2024-25 school year, requiring public and private high schools participating in a parental choice program to collect statistics on “violations of municipal disorderly conduct ordinances,” and other crimes, that happen on school grounds or school buses. Those other crimes would include homicide, sexual assault, burglary, battery and arson.
The collected data would be reported to the Department of Public Instruction and included on annual school and school district accountability reports. The bill was introduced by Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Delafield), who has pushed for tougher bail laws, and other tough-on-crime policies. Duchow has said repeatedly that she’s not in favor of helping the Milwaukee area, when discussing these policies.
Mayor Johnson’s recent statement is nothing new. While still serving as common council president in 2021, Johnson expressed support for increasing police presence around schools to curb reckless driving. Johnson’s more recent calls came after a fall semester during which 34 MPS high schools accumulated 778 calls for police service, the Badger Institute reports. That’s 21.2% more than the prior spring, and 16.5% more than in the fall of 2021. Johnson’s spokesman, Jeff Fleming, stated that talks regarding re-deploying officers within the schools have “advanced significantly” between MPS and MPD. “Because it’s not finalized, I don’t want to step out ahead of others,” Flemming told the Badger Institute. “More discussions and approvals are needed.”
In an annual survey, the Wisconsin Professional Police Association found that 63% of respondents thought having police officers in schools increased school safety. By contrast, 5% felt it decreased safety, and 25% felt it would do neither. A majority of the respondents to the survey (61%) felt police in schools would reduce school shootings, 54% disagreed that ordinary student behavior would be criminalized more often, and 59% felt police in school wouldn’t adversely impact the learning environment for non-white students.
The survey was conducted online last February and reached “1,119 members of the adult general public of Wisconsin,” the police association states. “The survey represents a quota sample drawn from Wisconsin adults with access to the internet.”
Some results skewed along racial lines. For example, while 37% of respondents overall felt protests hurt efforts for racial justice, 63% of non-white respondents felt they had helped. A minority of 32% of white respondents felt protests helped. White respondents were also more likely than nonwhite respondents to feel that deaths of minority residents caused by police were isolated incidents and not a sign of a larger problem.
The trend carried over into questions about whether police violence against Black Wisconsinites is a serious problem (21% of white respondents felt it was extremely serious and 16% not serious at all, compared to 50% of non-white respondents for extremely serious and 4% not serious at all), whether racism is a problem in our society (34% of white respondents felt its a major problem and 9% not at all, compared to 57% and 2% respectively for non-white respondents), and whether police violence against the public in general is a problem (12% of white respondents felt it was extremely serious, compared to 28% of non-white respondents).
Police officers potentially returning to MPS is also a concern for Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES). The coalition is the youth arm of Voces de la Frontera, with student activists from across southeastern Wisconsin. Last April, YES launched a campaign to improve the quality of meals served to MPS students. In a statement to Wisconsin Examiner, YES stated that it “opposes any actions Mayor Johnson may take in regards to opening up MPS doors to the Milwaukee Police Department.”
The group stressed that “police presence in schools does not lead to a safer or conducive learning environment. In fact, many students feel that a police presence yields to more dangerous circumstances, where students are put into the position of prisoner-like subordinate roles, versus the role of a pupil. This is often referred to as the ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline.” YES added, “If we as a community are constantly putting our students in defensive roles, then how can we expect them to grow and prosper into functioning members of our community?”
Rather than police in schools, the statement continued, “now should be the time we are investing in the emotional and mental health of our students, not policing them. If we only aim to deter violence with punishment, then we will never get to the root of the issue. Many MPS students come from mixed and hardened backgrounds who can’t afford regular meals, or whose parents work long or difficult hours.” For many students, the group stated, the police “are seen as violent outside forces in their community.”
“Milwaukee schools will return to a harsher place of confinement with the reintroduction of police,” YES said in its statement. “Students need more support, not policing.”
Tena from LIT told Wisconsin Examiner, “We remain committed to keeping police out of our schools and welcome a dialogue with Mayor Johnson.”
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