Syracuse School Board Elections Heat Up Over Police Debate

Originally published in The Appeal on June 11, 2021.
—-

A year ago, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, activists flooded the streets of Syracuse, New York, with demands for police reform. The Syracuse Police Accountability and Reform Coalition (SPAARC) put forth “The People’s Agenda for Policing,” which included a call to remove school cops, known euphemistically as school resource officers (SROs). Students stressed that schools rely on police too heavily for discipline and cops are too often called in for matters best handled by mental health experts or social workers. The Syracuse school district spends about $1.6 million on policing each year, and activists argued that the district could use some of that money to hire alternative support staff instead.

The push to remove police from public schools is not new, but it gained traction over the last year as racial justice protests swept the country. School boards in places like MinneapolisMilwaukeeDenver, and Portland, Maine, voted to end their contracts with local law enforcement, and in Syracuse, activists pointed to Rochester, a city just 90 minutes away, where the City Council also voted last June to remove school cops. The issue has become a focal point of local school board elections, too, like in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where some candidates campaigned last fall on promises to halt the practice of using armed police in schools.  

Research suggests the presence of cops increases suspensions and arrests, especially for young students, but there’s no consensus on whether they reduce school crime or violence. Student surveys show Black students tend to have significantly more negative perceptions of school police.

In early July, activists met with city leadership to discuss their demands. “I didn’t see that as helpful, I just saw it as a way to spill out our trauma in front of them and get blank faces in return,” said Shukri Mohamed, a leader in SPAARC and an affiliate group called CuseYouthBLM. Overall, Mohamed said she feels the school board and mayor have been very unresponsive to their concerns. “They’re very out of touch with what students are facing, even though we’ve provided them space and time and records to show what [school cops] feel like,” she said.

In light of their frustrations, Syracuse activists have their sights set on the city’s June 22 school board election. Youth have rallied behind Twiggy Billue, a longtime social justice leader and president of Syracuse’s National Action Network chapter. Billue has been pushing to remove cops from the city’s public schools for more than a decade, and in 2014 she published a book on how harsh discipline policies negatively affect students throughout life.

This isn’t Billue’s first attempt at running for the school board. In 2019, she competed against four other candidates in the Democratic primary for four spots and narrowly lost. This time there are four candidates competing for three seats. While the Syracuse Democratic Socialists of America chapter has endorsed Billue, the local Democratic Party has endorsed the three other candidates on the ballot: Karen Cordano, Nyatwa Bullock, and David Maynard.

Maynard, a former teacher and principal, said the issue of school cops “hasn’t really come up much at all” as he’s been campaigning. “It was a big issue last summer. … I believe they wrongly took a look at police officers in schools, but there wasn’t a lot of oomph for that,” he said. Maynard said his 20 years in school administration showed him the value of school police and he believes they really care about students. “They have such a complex set of abilities, and if you look at the Syracuse murder rate, violence doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door,” he said. Homicides were up 55 percent in Syracuse last year, though no data links this to violence in schools. In the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year with data available, there were 4 incidents of assault with a weapon (not including firearms or explosives) and 43 incidents of assault without a weapon.

Cordano, a parent leader, said voters have asked her about school police as she’s campaigned and says it’s “a very nuanced situation” that does not lend itself to “an easy yes or no answer.” Although she believes school police should not be used to discipline children, she says she wants to  learn how many guns and weapons they confiscate annually. “That information could change my mind in a heartbeat, depending on what the numbers are,” she said. “I feel like I don’t know enough to advocate right now, but I do think once the data is clear to me, then let’s figure it out.”

Bullock, an activist and undergraduate who is a former teaching assistant, did not respond to requests for comment.

Billue told The Appeal that working with SPAARC and the National Action Network has allowed her to look around the country and see “similarly situated” communities “finding success” in identifying school police alternatives. “We know there is potential for violence in schools but other schools have units outside of school to make sure nothing bad enters,” she said. “We also think something other than police could be implemented alongside community partners.” 

The issue of police violence in Syracuse schools came to a head in 2008, when an officer working in a high school punched a 15-year-old girl in the face and broke her nose. The cop said the student hit him first and he ultimately arrested her and charged her with attempted assault. Some parents and students defended the police officer, and others condemned his actions. The superintendent ultimately removed the cop from school, though the police chief had said the behavior was justified. About a decade later, another officer was removed when he broke a 14-year-old’s elbow during an arrest.

Some defenders of keeping police in schools point to violent incidents, like in 2018 when a teenager stabbed two students at a high school.

Most members of the Syracuse school board have been much more quiet on the issue than the candidates.

Three members—Pat Body, David Cecile, and Derrick Dorsey—are retiring, and only Body responded to a request for comment about school cops. “I voted to keep the SROs in our high schools,” she said in an email. “We want to make changes to the role.” Body did not answer a follow-up question about what kinds of changes she’d like to make.

School board commissioners Mark Muhammad and Tamica Barnett also did not respond to requests for comment. But last summer Barnett told Syracuse.com that although she’d like the board to have oversight of school resource officers, she believes they help young people establish positive relationships with police and are necessary sometimes in violent situations. “I’m inside the schools,” she said in July. “I would encourage anybody that’s really pushing for the SROs to be removed to spend days inside the schools.” Commissioner Katie Sojewicz referred media inquiries to school board president Dan Romeo.

Romeo told The Appeal that after having several board conversations about SROs, he and his colleagues have “decided that keeping them in our schools is what we would like to do going forward. There was a clear message in our discussions that we are willing to improve the SRO program and those discussions are happening.” When asked what kinds of improvements specifically, Romeo said in an email that a committee “will look at any opportunity to improve. While I am not a part of the group, I would say the [Memorandum of Agreement] with the city, job description/duties and responsibilities and personnel selection are all things that will be looked at.”

Perrine Wasser, co-chairperson of the Syracuse DSA chapter electoral committee, told The Appeal that committee members  see electing Billue as “the best chance we have at removing SROs” and that she believes some school board members could be persuaded. “I think this is what a lot of the parents want, and I think that will be clear when Twiggy shows up and has a lot of support,” Wasser said. “And she’s just the most consistent in showing up for the community and listening to what students and young people want.”

Sarhia Rahim, a SPAARC leader and co-founder of Raha Syracuse, a Muslim youth group, said she knows that even if Billue is elected “some of the other people at the table may not listen because they haven’t listened to us.” Still, Rahim said “we know where Twiggy stands … and I can’t say the same thing for a lot of the other commissioners.”

Mayor Ben Walsh is also facing a Democratic primary on June 22. His opponents, Khalid Bey, and Michael Greene, did not respond to a request for comment on school resource officers.

In an emailed statement to The Appeal, the mayor’s chief policy officer, Greg Loh, emphasized that the Walsh administration has engaged in discussions over the last year regarding the role of police, but the school board will make the final determination on district policy.  “Mayor Walsh’s Syracuse Police Reform Executive Order stated that he is committed to the implementation of a new model for school safety and security,” Loh said. “His order said the city would work in coordination with the Syracuse City School District which is governed by the Syracuse Board of Education.”

Mohamed of SPAARC and CuseYouthBLM said they’re not going to be deterred even if their goals take awhile. “We’re not stopping any time soon,” she said. “If it means we keep going for 10 years, then so be it.”