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Counselors not Cops: The Providence Student Union demands a new approach to school safety



The Providence Student Union (PSU) kicked off their new campaign demanding an increase in school counselors and health care staff and the removal of the eight school resource officers (SROs) from Providence Schools.

The students carried signs that said “Counselors not Cops” and outlined their three main demands.

-Remove all School Resource Officers (SROs) from Providence schools:

  1. Prevent armed officers, security officers, and/or police from being stationed in schools.
  2. Eliminate the eight person SRO presence currently rotating among Providence schools under a contract between the Providence Police Department and the Providence School Department.
  3. Use funding currently allocated for SROs within the Providence Police Department to support the hiring of the new health and safety staff described below.
  4. Hire health and safety staff focused on alternative measures for conflict resolution

-Create safe and healthy schools through Positive Safety and Conduct strategies, which includes hiring health and safety staff who focus on alternative measures for conflict resolution:

  1. Hire community intervention workers, behavior interventionists, and/or restorative justice coordinators for a ratio of 250 students or fewer per health and safety staffer.
  2. These health and safety staff will be in charge of creating a unique safety plan based on restorative justice that meets the schools’ individual needs. These plans should include a peer mediator component.

-Increase the number of support staff in schools:

  1. Hire school guidance counselors, nurses and mental health providers each for a ratio of 150 students or fewer per support staff, with specific staffing plans for unique schools.
  2. Mental health providers should be available as a resource for teachers as well as students.
  3. Support staff must represent and reflect the demographics of the student body.
  4. Ensure newly hired school support staff undergo restorative justice trainings that reflect the Providence Schools Code of Conduct.

The constant presence of police in schools makes many students feel like they are treated like criminals and allows teachers and school administrators to escalate school misbehavior by calling in SROs said the students.

Sign the petition here.

“I am fighting to remove the people and pieces that constantly support a system that criminalizes students,” said Classical High School student and Providence Student Union member Jayson Rodriguez. “Those people and pieces are the school resource officers and their guns.”

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Nationally, reports PSU, the crisis of discrimination in student arrests is well-documented. Locally, the data is less clear, but the Providence student population is 91 percent students of color, and there were 110 arrests in Providence Public Schools in the 2016-2017 school year.

“Cops are not necessary in schools, it makes students feel uncomfortable and can be replaced by alternatives such as safety teams or trained staff that know how to de escalate situations,” said Providence Career & Technical Academy (PCTA) student and PSU member Aleita Cook. “Counselors and mental health workers are extremely important because there are students in school that go through mental health problems and don’t know what to do about it. Students should not have to feel alone because they have no one to listen to them.”

Most importantly, the PSU speakers called for addressing the roots of school behavior challenges through deepened investments in mental health counseling, social workers, guidance counselors, and nurses. Investments in these sorts of resources and supports, PSU argues, would make most arrests and interactions between students and SROs unnecessary in the first place.

The #CounselorsNotCops campaign is the latest from Providence Student Union who, since 2010, has successfully advocated for the end of Rhode Island’s high-stakes testing program, expanded free transportation to school for thousands of Providence students, and helped build the city’s first Ethnic Studies courses, among many other successful campaigns. PSU continued its tradition of creative demonstrations on Wednesday, as it supplemented the speaking program both with a counseling table and with the dismantling of a homemade art piece representing the “school-to-prison pipeline”.

Providence Councilperson Nirva LaFortune (Ward 3) spoke at the event, saying she heard students’ call for change. “Our city has an obligation to provide for the health and safety of our students in many different ways. Unfortunately, our students have let us know that there is still much work to be done. I look forward to working with all parties involved, including Providence Student Union and Providence Public Safety, to submit an ordinance that addresses Providence Student Union’s concerns and invests in a holistic strategy for student health and safety.”

The event was hosted by Arely Diaz, Youth Safety Officer at Providence Student Union, who spoke at the beginning of the program.

Also speaking was Paul Tavarez, Organizing Director for Providence Student Union.

Then there were some questions from the press, followed by the cutting of the “school to prison pipeline” by Aleita Cook.

[This piece written with the help of a press release]

Jayson Rodriguez
Nirva LaFortune
Arely Diaz
Paul Tavarez

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About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.