Pictured: Providence Schools Superintendent Harrison Peters
The City of Providence’s African American Advisory Group (AAAG) through its Police Advisory Subgroup, held a public meeting last night outlining their plan to phaseout Student Resource Officers (SROs) in Providence Schools. SROs are police officers stationed inside schools. Anita Bruno, who leads the Police Advisory Subgroup, outlined the full plan, as can be seen in the video below:
The plan, which is at this point only a recommendation from the AAAG and not an official city document/policy/ordinance/law, does not simply phaseout SROs – it also proposes to phase in “behavioral and mental health support for students and phase out the reliance on police as the first level of crisis intervention.”
Providence Public Schools Superintendent Harrison Peters was reluctant to commit to the plan, or any plan to phaseout SROs in Providence schools. “My main role here tonight was to keep my mouth closed and listen,” said Peters. He noted that right now there are SROs working “primarily in six of our schools” which, during the pandemic, are only operating at 25-50% capacity.
Despite keeping his mouth closed, Peters sang the praises of SROs, saying that he’s seen them, “connecting with kids, mentoring kids. I’ve seen them at the feeding sites handing out food. Each SRO has an office in schools and as I walk through schools I see them in their office having conversations with students…”
At one point Peters was complimentary, saying that the conversation with the AAAG has been “very helpful” but later he seemed to question whether or not the AAAG recommendations truly reflect the voice of the community, saying, “I also have to go back and listen to the kids who actually attend the schools. Very rarely am I on these Zoom calls and I have PPSD students. But [they’re] saying the community, ‘we’re representing the community…'”
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That said, Peters did say that he is committed to having guidance counselors in all the schools and is eager to get the funding for social workers and mental health professionals in all the schools. It should also be noted that Peters attended the entirety of the presentation. State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Providence Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré were invited but did not attend. Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza attended for 15 minutes, promising that his staff would brief him after the fact.
The “root cause” of the Providence School District’s problems are not SROs, said Peters. He noted the poor reading levels among students and the outrageous numbers of children who are not receiving a decent education in Providence Schools. SROs are in six schools, continued Peters, “we can take them out tonight, but there are still structural things that have to happen that are fundamentally for kids learning every day.”
“I’m sure that we all, everyone on this call, knows 100% that [SROs] are not the root cause of everything that’s going on,” countered Anita Bruno. SROs “are used as a tool to conduct the school-to-prison pipeline. And that’s what we’re trying to get rid of as we’re addressing the root causes.
“We know that teachers do not fit the demographics of the students,” said Bruno. “We know that teachers are afraid of the students. We know that there’s a lot of miscommunication. We know there’s a lot of kids with trauma. We know that the schools are being defunded. We know that we need to reinvest in our schools. We understand all of that. But at the same time, our kids are being locked up, arrested and given criminal careers for instances that they should be knocking the erasers or cleaning the chalkboards…”
The argument against SROs, as noted by Bruno above, is that the presence of police in schools is the first stop on the school-to-prison pipeline. As the AAAG states in their phaseout plan:
- Black students represent 16% of student enrollment, they represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest.
- White students represent 51% of enrollment, 41% of students referred to law enforcement, and 39% of those arrested.
- Students with disabilities (served by IDEA) represent a quarter of students arrested and referred to law enforcement, even though they are only 12% of the overall student population.
- The RIDE website states that in Providence, 769 students in the school year 2018-19 were referred to law enforcement and 140 of those were criminally charged.
“We want our students to be scholars not suspects,” became a mantra during the presentation. The goal is to stop the policing and the criminalization of students and to provide the mental and social support students need to succeed.
The AAAG was quick to say that their recommendations are in no way meant to co-opt or replace the great work being done in Providence by community organizations that have been working on the elimination of SROs in our schools since the introduction of SROs, including but limited to Providence Student Union, ARISE, PrYSM, Youth in Action, and DARE.
While very happy with the efforts of the AAAG, Chanda Womack, Executive Director and Founder of ARISE, pushed back against the heavy use of volunteers, college students and parents, doing the work of ensuring school safety for free, saying that the work of Black and brown folks needs to be valued financially. “How dare we exploit their knowledge and have them volunteer? There needs to be a line item to prioritize what they’re bringing.”
SROs are paid, why shouldn’t those staffing the system to replace them be paid as well?