Are school safety coaches enough to protect students from gun violence?

The rash of school shootings rolling across the country continues. Yesterday, an altercation involving five students at South Education Center in Richfield ended in a shooting that killed one student, seriously wounded another, and left a third with minor injuries.

During a press conference on Wednesday, officials identified the two suspects who were arrested as Alfredo Rosario Solis, 19, and Fernando Valdez-Alverez, 18, both of Minneapolis. Gunfire killed 15-year-old Jahmari Rice. The other victims were not identified. Two firearms were seized pursuant to search warrants executed at homes in Crystal and Minneapolis. An investigation linking the firearms to the shooting is ongoing.

Many are now asking whether this tragedy could have been prevented after South Education Center leaders removed police officers, dismantled metal detectors from school entrances, and failed to implement other safety measures after seizing a firearm from a student at the school in September 2021.

Four years ago, school administrators opted to replace sworn police School Resource Officers with unarmed School Safety Coaches. Superintendent Sandy Lewandowski explained the safety coaches specialize in mental health, de-escalation, restorative justice, and safe physical interventions. Lewandowski believed this “homegrown model” has proven effective by reducing arrests from 65 to 12 during the first year after removing police from the school. Across all four school buildings, the independent school district now averages five arrests per year. Lewandowski expressed concern that police in the school put “student[s] of color, [with disabilities] . . . at a high risk of going through what is termed the ‘pipeline to prison.’” One of the safety coaches interviewed noted that “[i]t takes a while to build trust. Kids clearly don’t trust the police officers. There’s a lot of trauma behind it. But we have an open-door policy. We also have a fresh start mentality.”

Superintendent Lewandowski also ordered the removal of all metal detectors for the 2021-2022 school year “after serious concerns about the racial equity impacts of using metal detectors.” In a newsletter to concerned parents and staff, Superintendent Lewandowski explained,

Racial equity work is about learning from past experiences and doing better when we know better. In alignment with our strategic priorities of racial equity and trauma-responsive practices, we will end the use of metal detectors in 287 buildings beginning the 2021-2022 school year. Note that only two sites currently have working metal detectors, as we have decided to invest in student-friendly proactive strategies that advance positive learning environments (emphasis in original).

She continued by observing,

We understand and expect there to be various responses from our school community about this change. Everyone’s feelings are valid. At the same time, we must prioritize doing what is best for students, especially Students of Color, and our values as a school district.  

Sadly, Superintendent Lewandowski’s decision to remove metal detectors designed to keep firearms out of the school is part of a national trend. As one Washington-based education non-profit summarized its position on metal detectors,

There isn’t any evidence that metal detectors actually work to prevent things like school shootings or other types of violence. In fact, the relentless exposure to discrimination, police brutality, the endless viral videos of police shootings, and other forms of racism has been shown to be associated with PTSD and mental health challenges. . When you add the toll of the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black and Latino communities, the removal of these devices has never been more important.

The questions parents, teachers, political leaders and concerned community members should be asking are whether the police were consulted on the best strategies to protect kids from gun violence in a school setting? How does the school district handle threats of targeted violence? Are the police involved in the threat mitigation process to prevent harm or are police only contacted once a crime has been committed?

The mission of police executives is to prevent gun violence from occurring in the first place. Police have the training, expertise, dedication, and tools necessary to protect our kids. School Resource Officers are a key component in this effort. Police leaders need to be at the table and consulted before changes are made in a school’s security posture. Anything less puts our kids’ safety at risk each day.