As protests over police brutality and racial injustice sweep the nation, some Milwaukee-area schools are speaking out and taking action – including a push to cut ties with police in Milwaukee Public Schools.
Last week, leaders at a charter school on the northwest side of Milwaukee organized a silent protest. Teachers, students and parents knelt for nine minutes on the sidewalk outside of Rocketship Transformation Prep.
Nine minutes is the amount of time police officer Derrick Chauvin kept his knee on the neck of George Floyd, whose death sparked the current wave of protests.
As the Rocketship families and staff knelt and raised their fists in the air, cars passing by on Silver Spring Drive honked in support.
“It was very important to invite our families here and see that, you know, we’re not being silent about this,” said Rocketship Assistant Principal Mia Harvey.
Harvey helped organize the protest. She says schools have an obligation to stand up for their black students. The majority of Rocketship’s kindergarten through fifth graders are black.
“A lot of our mothers are really scared for their sons and that’s very unfortunate,” Harvey said. “So we’re just letting them know we’re gonna do everything we can. We’re going to protest, we’re going to fight, we’re going to write letters. We’re going to do all we can to stand up and let them know we’re not going to let this die down, we’re going to fight for their rights every day until this changes.”
One of the Rocketship mothers at the protest was Jade Carr. Her son Nzuri is in kindergarten.
“It takes a village to raise a kid,” Carr said. “Your kids are with the teachers most of the time. When you at work, these people are helping you raise your kids. So to have Rocketship, their staff do something like this, it feels good.”
Going into next school year, principal Kourtney Vang says Rocketship will increase the amount of time it spends on student social-emotional learning.
“We know we’re already going to have to discuss COVID and why we shut down school last year and address some of the challenges there,” Vang said. “But also make sure we’re doing a better job talking about race and racism and protests and the rights that people have to speak out.”
While individual schools like Rocketship show support of anti-racism protests, Milwaukee Public Schools as a district may cut ties with police.
The school board was already moving in that direction. In late May, it cut $100,000 from MPS’s school resource officer contract. But now, board members, including Sequanna Taylor, want to revisit the question of contracts with police.
“I want us to do something that’s not just saying ‘black lives matter,’ but having actions, actionable steps behind it,” Taylor said in an interview with WUWM last week.
MPS’s school resource officer contract (link is for the contract from the 2018-19 school year, a more recent contract was not immediately available) doesn’t place police in schools on a day-to-day basis. Rather, it provides training for a small pool of officers and who are the go-to responders when police are called to school grounds.
MPS also contracts with the Milwaukee Police Department to provide patrols after school and at evening events. MPS Chief Financial Officer Martha Kreitzman says in the upcoming school year, the resource officer and after-school contracts total $141,402.
Student activists with Leaders Igniting Transformation have called on MPS for years to reduce the money it spends on security and redirect that spending to mental health support, nurses and counselors.
“The reality is that our young children of color don’t experience positivity when you talk about law enforcement or police officers,” Taylor said. “And we often talk about the school-to-prison pipeline. So we need to be very careful in the environment we put any child in. If we want to talk about them being successful in school, we cannot create an environment similar to a prison or detention center.”
Taylor’s resolution would end all contracts with police except one that is required by state statute. It also would stop the district from buying more metal detectors, which are placed at some high school entrances.
MPS Superintendent Keith Posley has defended the district’s contracts with police, saying they help keep students safe because the officers are trained to deal with young people.
“I understand we don’t want police in schools,” Posley said at a board meeting in late May. “But I would say to the board, a word of caution: We are not at the stage where we can say we can’t work with police.”
But school board members argue that police are already paid with tax dollars to respond to emergencies, and MPS shouldn’t be using money that could support students on police. The board will discuss cutting MPD contracts on Thursday night.
Beyond the question of police, MPS leaders have pledged to talk with students and families about how to better support “the emotional and physical safety of black students and youth of color.”
Ninety percent of MPS students are non-white, and the district has long struggled with racial opportunity gaps and disproportionate discipline against black students.
Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.