Feb 28, 2022 - News

Inside Des Moines Public Schools without police

A Des Moines public school bus stops outside Roosevelt High School on an overcast day.
Outside Roosevelt High School on Nov. 10, 2020. Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools

Student behavioral problems at Des Moines schools have reached a fever pitch this year, staff, parents and police told Axios in interviews over the last month.

Why it matters: Des Moines Public Schools is one of 33 districts in the U.S. that ended its school resource officer (SRO) programs since May of 2020, according to Education Week.

  • The outcome in the district could influence the future of hundreds of SRO programs across the nation.

Flashback: DMPS nixed the 22-year-old program last year in response to local and national concerns that SROs fuel a "school-to-prison pipeline" — the link between punishments and the criminal justice system that disproportionately affect Black students.

Fast forward: Some parents are raising concerns about a rise in violence and bullying at district schools this school year.

  • Guns, knives, Mace, rocks, a brick and a stun gun have been used in recent school fights, some of which have been captured on video and posted to social media by students, according to police reports.
  • Multiple incidents have involved students assaulting teachers or staff, the reports show.

Zoom in: In addition to physical injuries, multiple children have reported bullying that, in some in cases, has ended catastrophically.

  • Local refugee organization EMBARC said a Burmese student who was bullied at Merrill Middle School died by suicide last month.
  • In October, a boy with autism was held down by Goodrell Middle School classmates who scribbled "loser" across his shirt, according to a police report.

What they're saying: Hoyt Middle School student Jeremiah LaGrange and his family told Axios that he's frequently bullied.

  • The 12-year-old has witnessed multiple fights and recently reported a student carrying an air gun.
  • LaGrange said that school staff often escort him between classes and that he's afraid to be alone at school.

Of note: DMPS spokesperson Phil Roeder declined to comment on the cases, saying that the the district generally does not discuss disciplinary issues involving identifiable students.

  • Merrill, Goodrell and Hoyt schools didn't respond to Axios' request for comment.
Who's patrolling school hallways
Illustration of a pencil with security-style yellow and black stripes.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The dozen or so police officers previously assigned to Des Moines' middle and high schools were replaced using a new approach to school safety that falls largely on the three following roles.

1. Restoration and safety coordinators: 13 high school staffers who were given additional training in de-escalation oversee school safety.

2. Campus monitors: They assist with safety plans and conflict management in high schools.

  • The district has invested in hiring more this school year. There's now a total of 25, up from 14 the previous year.

3. Restoration facilitators: Five facilitators from the nonprofit Urban Dreams were hired to help students facing disciplinary actions avoid future problems.

Of note: Police are still called to school buildings to deal with the most serious offenses involving weapons.

  • They also respond to fights if families of the children involved request law enforcement.
The results so far
Data: Des Moines Public Schools; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios
Data: Des Moines Public Schools; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

High schools have seen the most aggressive behaviors increase during the first four months of this school year, DMPS student and family services director Jake Troja told the school board in December.

By the numbers: Disciplinary referrals — generally those involving assaults or weapons — were up almost 30% to nearly 520 cases in grades 9-12, as compared to the same period in the 2019-2020 school year, according to the district data Troja presented.

  • In grades 6-8, the referrals were down 10% to 1,465.

Yes, but: Police calls to district schools decreased nearly 50%, to 194, between August and Oct. 11, 2021.

  • Of note: Cases that engaged SROs counted as police calls in previous years.

The big picture: Only 50% of DMPS students in grades 6-12 said they have a favorable perception of their physical and psychological safety at school, according to a survey conducted last fall.

  • That's down 8 percentage points from the prior year.
Zoom out: How other districts have fared
Illustration of a chalk drawing of a police badge on sidewalk.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

At least two U.S. public school districts that ended their SRO programs in the past two years have reinstated them following concerns about safety.

Why it matters: The outcomes in Alexandria, Virginia, and Fremont, California, raise questions about whether the movement to remove police from schools may be short-lived.

On the other hand, Cedar Rapids, Iowa's second largest school district, has seen dramatic drops in arrests after removing some of its SROs last year, and putting remaining officers into "soft uniforms," rather than standard police attire.

  • Officials said the drop is linked with how the district responds to incidents, not necessarily a difference in student behavior.
  • The district plans to continue developing its safety strategy to better address disproportional arrests of Black students.

What they're saying: Rudy Perez, vice president of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), told Fox News earlier this month that some districts are experiencing "buyer's remorse" as they manage real-time consequences from the removal of SROs.

  • NASRO director Mo Canady told Axios that some of the data used to evaluate SRO programs has been incomplete or failed to weigh the totality of their benefits.
  • School arrests are frequently associated with court-issued warrants and have nothing to do with school discipline, he said.

The other side: School fights have been commonplace for decades. Restoring the SRO program will not reduce violence, Freda Beckwith, an anti-violence program manager at the Young Women's Resource Center, told school board members in December.

  • Improving teacher-to-student ratios and mental health programs are better options, she said.
What's next
An anti-bullying sign from a Des Moines Public Schools rally in 2017.
A sign from a "Speak Up Against Violence" walk that some DMPS students attended in 2017. Photo courtesy of Des Moines Public Schools

While some DMPS parents have called for the SRO program to be restored, district leaders don't appear to be considering that option at this time.

  • Rather, the district is making tailored adjustments to its safety approach.

The latest: The district issued a new fight policy in December that places students on behavioral contracts to address issues. Second and third offenses result in 30- and 60-day suspensions, respectively.

  • Schools with the highest levels of behavioral problems are receiving additional intervention assistance.

What's next: The school board will review student behavioral data again in coming weeks.

  • Some ongoing ideas include revamping the student code of conduct and more family outreach, vice board chairperson Teree Caldwell-Johnson told Axios.

Of note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free and confidential support for anyone in distress, in addition to prevention and crisis resources. Also available for online chat.

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