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Cedar Rapids schools plans to examine its system as new contract approved for police in schools | #schoolsaftey

CEDAR RAPIDS — Leaders in the Cedar Rapids Community School District plan to examine its disciplinary practices and the ways students are supported in schools as the school board approved a new contract for school resource officers — police — in schools Monday.

Superintendent Tawana Grover — who joined the district in April — said school resource officers are just one layer of support to students. A more comprehensive plan is needed to provide a “safe and supportive learning environment” for the “diverse needs of our students,” Grover said.

The contract for school resource officers was approved by the Cedar Rapids school board in a 6-1 vote with Dexter Merschbrock opposing.

Black students disproportionately charged

Forty-six students were charged during the 2022-23 school year — double the number from the previous year. Black students made up the majority of charges — 37 — and 26 white students were charged. Black students make up about 19 percent of the student population.

Fourteen Black students were charged with disorderly conduct this year out of 16 disorderly conduct charges overall, Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said. This is partially because of an incident at a high school where six students were charged with disorderly conduct in the fall of 2022, she said.

The number of charges is drastically lower than the 185 charges during the 2018-2019 school year — before changes were made to the Cedar Rapids school resource officer program.

However, the district has yet to meet its goal — set in the fall of 2021 — of reducing charges filed against district students by 50 percent or greater as measured by monthly reports from the police department, and a 50 percent or greater reduction of the disproportional charges for Black students.

The number of students diverted from charges — which includes preventive conversations and investigations, safety plans, restorative conversations and parent meetings — was 42 during the 2022-23 school year. This number is comparable to the year before.

Diversions and charges accounted for only 3.8 percent of all “behavior incidences” during the 2022-23 school year, Kooiker said.

There are five school resource officers are stationed at Kennedy, Jefferson, Washington and Metro high schools and Polk Alternative. The program costs $723,395 with the school district paying half of the cost and the City of Cedar Rapids paying the other half.

‘Concerning findings’ with the program

Grover said there were some “concerning findings,” after she and school board members gathered feedback from 100 students, 26 administrators and eight school resource officers last month about the program.

“We are concerned about students having charges at a young age,” Grover said.

Some students feel the school resource officer in their building is a safe person to go to. Other students voiced concern about the national trend of police brutality toward people of color.

School administrators said school resource officers have likely stopped a number of incidents by being in the buildings, according to administrators. However, the school resource officer program lacks consistency across buildings, administrators said.

For more than a year, the contract has included school resource officers wear “soft uniforms” in schools — khaki pants and a Cedar Rapids Police Department polo. However, Grover said she’s observed officers wear their soft uniform “inconsistently” and instead wear their standard police uniform.

School officials will place a heavier emphasis on the requirement to wear a soft uniform this year, she said.

A ‘safe and supportive learning environment’

As part of a new plan to provide a “safe and supportive learning environment,” the district is creating a new position titled the district safe and secure learning environment coordinator and plans to establish a safe and secure learning environment task force.

According to the job description, the coordinator will explore innovative ways to improve the district’s allocation of resources to meet student’s needs, ensure their safety, and oversee fair and equitable management of conflict among students, faculty and staff, families and the community.

The coordinator will integrate safety, security and emergency preparedness procedures across the district and collaborate with district and campus-level administrators on the process and provide professional learning to school staff. Grover said she hopes this position is filled by August.

Change started with students

Changes made to the Cedar Rapids’ school resource program were initiated by students — Raafa and Rhama Elsheikh — who graduated from Kennedy High School in 2021. The sisters advocated for the removal of police from schools, among other requests for how the district could better support students of color.

At the time, data from the Iowa Department of Human Rights showed that Black students in Cedar Rapids schools were six times more likely to have allegations of criminal wrongdoing made against them than white students.

Changes to the school resource officer program over the last two years include:

  • School resource officer assistance plan implemented for K-8 buildings;
  • School resource officers working with building principals on facilitating, leading and organizing lock down drills;
  • And school officials collecting monthly data reports from the Cedar Rapids Police Department and reviewing the data as a team.

The district made an additional change to the program last year by removing school resource officers from patrolling Cedar Rapids middle schools.

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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