Police-free schools: Security staff step up as Madison strategizes safety

Editor’s note: This story came about through a partnership between the Cap Times, Local Voices Network and a University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism class. Students analyzed the Cap Times People’s Agenda and chose to report on non-police solutions for community issues, one of the topics readers identified as a priority. Specifically, the student journalists explored what safety will look like without police officers in Madison schools.

On weekday afternoons, Eddie “Coach” Singleton, a security assistant at Cherokee Middle School on Madison’s west side, can be found sitting at his computer, watching as students trickle into a virtual classroom established for their lunch period. Singleton spends the hour getting to know students, playing games and building community.

Since schools have been virtual due to COVID-19 restrictions, he and other school security assistants, or SSAs, have used time they typically would have spent surveying school grounds or bouncing from room to room as an opportunity to build relationships with students by offering a virtual “open door” during downtime periods. There has been such a large turnout for the SSA-led lunch sessions, Cherokee had to recruit staff to split up and take shifts.

“There are a lot of kids that are willing to hang out virtually during lunch, so that’s very telling,” Singleton said. “Some kids just light up like a light bulb. There’s an eighth grade group and a seventh grade group where I barely get a word in because they’re just so happy to tell me all these things that are going on.”

The right move?

Freedom Inc., a local organization whose “youth squad” was prominent in the push for police-free schools, will work with MMSD to re-plan what safety and security will look like. M. Adams, co-executive director of Freedom Inc., described the ending of MMSD’s contract with MPD as a “victory” and hopes to help the district rethink what safety and justice means, especially for students of color.

Ananda Mirilli, a School Board member, described Freedom Inc. as one of the district’s partners in figuring out what to do going forward and said a Freedom Inc. representative is currently serving on the district’s safety/security Ad Hoc committee.

Mirilli said the concept of safety, both in and out of schools, differs based on race.

“In this country we have created a framework to say who gets to be safe, and so it’s important to also say… what does safe look like for Black people and other people?” Mirilli said. “Education inherently says that we build community, that we learn together, and we haven’t experienced that yet, and I believe we can.”

Castro said the district hopes to shift “from punitive and exclusionary punishment for students into more restorative justice, holistic approaches to student behavior.” 

While MPD will no longer fill the SRO capacity, Singleton said MMSD will still work with MPD to preserve safety in schools, calling the relationship a “partnership.”

“In my experience, there was never any awkwardness or resentment with the police when it was time to work together, it was just where we were solving something as a team,” Singleton said.

Assad said students built relationships with the officers and removing SROs from the schools was a performative action. Assad and Singleton both described former La Follette SRO Roderick Johnson as a positive force in the school.

“He would be what you considered like a pillar of the community out there at Madison La Follette as an SRO,” Singleton said. “I know that he’ll be missed in the building. He made some kids smile every day, he made some people feel safe every day.”

Wayne Strong, a retired Madison police lieutenant who served as an SRO at West High School, said while students of color may feel safer without the presence of law enforcement, now police responding to calls from the schools won’t have any prior relationship with the students. Interactions between students and police that are less personal could result in harsher interactions, he said. 

Other school districts are facing the same challenge, including in Minneapolis, the epicenter of the reignited issue. After swiftly removing police officers from its schools’ hallways, the school district created 11 new positions referred to as “Public Safety Support Specialists,” according to reporting from The 74.

While more than half of the 24 finalists for those positions have experience in education and work with the district in some way, The 74 reported that 14 have experience as police officers, corrections officials or private security guards.

The move has caught backlash from activists and parents, as well as the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. Through a Facebook post, the district admitted the positions were filled in an “accelerated” process in order to train new hires before the start of the school year.

While the district would have saved $1.1 million after a year without the Minneapolis Police Department contract, City Pages reported that most of those funds, up to $944,000, would be used to hire the public safety support specialists.

Freedom, Inc along with Wayne Strong are part of Madison Schools’ Safety and Security Ad Hoc Committee (see documents, as well).