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Schools feel pressure to reassess disciplinary policies including a role for police

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Over the past school year, teachers and principals say they've been dealing with disruptions, violence and threats. They report fights, kids smuggling weapons into classrooms and trouble maintaining discipline. Many of these schools have been trying not to kick students out. So now some talk of bringing police back in. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: This is Ingraham High School on the north end of Seattle.

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KASTE: And just inside the entrance, there's a poster - a memorial. It says, REST EZ EB, a reference to a 17-year-old boy named Ebenezer shot to death in the school hallway. That was in November. The flowers taped to the poster are now wilted. But the memories are still vivid.

MAKE GALLITELLI: I fear every day. You know, I really fear.

KASTE: Outside the school, Make Gallitelli recalls rushing here with other anxious parents. Her freshman daughter had heard the gunshots but was OK. And since then, many of the parents have been pressing the school district to explain what happened and to review its policies for discipline and safety since the pandemic.

GALLITELLI: I believe that there is a lot of health issues and emotional issues in the youth, in adults and everything. We're seeing it. But I also believe that there is permissiveness in schools.

KASTE: Similar complaints have been heard around the country this school year, from Brevard County, Fla., where Sheriff Wayne Ivey held a press conference outside his jail denouncing students who'd attacked local school staff...

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WAYNE IVEY: Quite frankly, they're not worried about getting in trouble. They know nothing's going to happen to them. They know they're not going to be given after-school detention. They're not going to be suspended. They're not going to be expelled.

KASTE: ...To Portland, Ore., where a seventh grader told the school board about how another student had held a blade to her throat and then was allowed back to the same school building.

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UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: I'm not asking. I am not begging. I am demanding that you take charge and provide for students' safety. Do something. Don't wait for someone to get killed.

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KASTE: At Ingraham High in Seattle, parents focused on reports that the alleged shooter had been caught one month earlier with a hunting knife and a realistic-looking BB gun. NPR member station KUOW uncovered internal school communications about the incident. At least one staffer asked if the boy shouldn't be expelled, but he just got suspended for 2 1/2 days. Seattle schools would not do an interview about this case, but the district has been trying to de-emphasize certain punishments in recent years. It's part of a national movement.

RACHEL PERERA: Research shows that suspensions and expulsions can have a negative effect on students.

KASTE: Rachel Perera studies K-12 education policy at the Brookings Institution. Since the Obama administration, she says, schools have recognized that exclusionary punishments are used more often against students of color, something critics call the school-to-prison pipeline. Perera says the trend away from this is a good thing, but it may now be running into some headwinds.

PERERA: I do worry about that because we're seeing lots of reports both in the media and in surveys of educators that they are facing more acute behavioral challenges.

KASTE: And it's not that principals want to start expelling more kids again.

SCOTT SEAMAN: I don't disagree with the movement. We were disproportionately suspending students of color for decades.

KASTE: Scott Seaman runs the Association of Washington School Principals. He says what he's been hearing around his state and the country is that after the pandemic, districts have failed to provide enough alternatives, such as more counseling and programs known as restorative justice.

SEAMAN: The problem now is now you've got a whole bunch of students bottled up in the system with no additional resources to deal with the issue.

KASTE: And this worry about troubled kids being bottled up leads to another question - when should the schools turn to the police? During the George Floyd protests of 2020, many big-city school districts made a point of ending their police in the schools programs. Portland, Ore., was one of those.

HENRY CALLAHAN: We have a very - a school that doesn't always support law enforcement.

KASTE: Henry Callahan is a junior at Cleveland High School. A student was shot in December, and Callahan later did a story for the student paper about the possibility of bringing police back.

CALLAHAN: We were expecting a lot of people to be like, yeah, no, absolutely not.

KASTE: Instead, he found that opinions had softened.

CALLAHAN: We saw, honestly, a lot more of the students voicing like, yeah, you know what? It might be necessary. Or, we think it is time, you know.

KASTE: Some parents petitioned the school district to rebuild its ties with the police, and the board is now planning to bring officers closer to schools, but not necessarily back into schools. Jacque Dixon is the vice president of the Portland Association of Teachers. She says most of her colleagues prefer to keep the cops on the outside.

JACQUE DIXON: There is research out there that suggests having a police presence in schools can be harmful to students and cause them to feel like they don't want to be in that environment.

KASTE: But other districts have brought police back inside, often after violence. In Denver, when a student shot two administrators in March, the mayor said removing officers from schools had been, quote, "a mistake." Mo Canady is the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, known as SROs.

MO CANADY: The ranks of SROs are growing once again.

KASTE: He says that often happens after a high-profile school shooting. But this year it may also have to do with the big increase in the number of first-time gun buyers during the pandemic and police warnings about more unsecured guns being left where kids can get to them. Canady says this is where a school needs a trained police officer.

CANADY: We don't need school administrators having to be tasked with searching someone for a gun. That's not fair to them.

KASTE: Back in Seattle, the district is not ready to station officers inside schools. And that's all right with Ingraham parent Make Gallitelli. She doesn't think a school-based cop could have prevented the fatal shooting here. And she's also a believer in finding ways to avoid suspending or expelling kids. But once there's a weapon, she draws the line.

GALLITELLI: That child needs to be treated with respect, but find a way - somehow remove that child from the rest of the students because that child represents a threat.

KASTE: District administrators have been meeting with her and other parents privately to try to reassure them about safety. And just a few weeks ago, when an online video showed a student flashing a gun in the school's parking lot, they quickly called the police to confiscate the weapon.

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.