African-American students are far more likely to be arrested in Madison high schools than their white peers, and the disparity between white and black arrests is much higher than the national average, according to publicly available data.
Over the past four years, African-American students have made up about 19 percent of the enrollment of Madison’s four high schools, but 83.5 percent of arrests in and adjacent to the schools, according to Madison Metropolitan School District data. Conversely, white students make up 45 percent of the high school population but only 13.6 percent of arrests.
Nationally, African-American students make up 15.5 percent of student enrollments and about 33 percent of arrests in schools, according to a recent report from Education Week.
Racial disparities were one of the issues of contention between the school district and the City of Madison last summer, when the contract for the Madison Police Department to supply Educational Resource Officers (EROs) to the four high schools was up for renewal, said Board of Education President James Howard.
“That’s one of the things we talked about. We’re looking at how we can structure our relationship and minimize that disproportionality,” Howard said. “It’s a point of communication. It’s something we’re well aware of and we’re working on. There’s no target that says five percent (reduction in disparity) this year, ten percent next year. Our goal is to continually reduce the disproportionality that you see.”
The contract was set to be renewed for three years in August but was rejected by the school district amid community concerns about the presence of police in schools. It was ultimately approved in October with an opt-out clause after two years. Under the contract, the school district pays about $356,000 per year for the four officers plus $110 per week for four police vehicles.
After approving the contract, the district established an ad-hoc committee of the Board of Education to engage with policing issues and hear community concerns. That committee has met twice and will meet monthly for a year.
“The ad-hoc group will be working with the community to come up with a plan to be better and address the disproportionality,” Howard said. “Over the next year, we want to have concluded the work of the ad-hoc and be moving forward with a better agreement and a better plan to deal with the situations that cause these disproportionalities to occur.”
“While we have a contract with the city for police officers in our high schools, we are all incredibly cognizant of the need to make sure that’s a relationship that’s working well on behalf of the students we serve,” said Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham. “Everyone is open to making changes to the way we work in order to meet our students’ needs. I think that’s important.”
Case in Point
The issue of police in schools came to the fore again last week as four Madison East students were arrested after a fight broke out in the cafeteria. One was held overnight in the Dane County jail because she is 17, the legal age of adulthood in Wisconsin’s criminal system, and another of the students involved was 16, a child according to the criminal system — resulting in a tentative charge of felony child abuse.
“This is just one case that has come to light,” said Jerome Dillard, statewide director of Ex Prisoners Organizing (EXPO), which advocates on issues surrounding the criminal justice system. “I’ve worked with many young men whose lives have been ruined because the ERO decides to arrest the one who’s in a fight.”
Howard stressed that he doesn’t know all the details of that incident, but, he said, “that was an in-school fight. I think it should be if it’s a fight in school it should not have been escalated to that level. I certainly hope our school staff can handle a school fight, and if not, we have to look at why and figure out how to improve that.”
Howard said one of the things the ad hoc committee will examine is which types of incidents police should get involved in and which should be handled by school staff. Specifically, Howard said it might be best for school personnel to handle fights.
“You got 27,000 students. On occasion you have fights,” Howard said. “I’m always surprised when people act like school fights just started last week. That’s one of the things we need to work on. How do we improve ourselves so that our staff can handle those situations?”
“We haven’t completed our investigation into what happened. I want to be very clear on that,” Cheatham said. “The police are looking into actions that were taken from the police perspective. I think everyone is taking this incident very seriously. I don’t want to prejudge based on a case that we’re still in the process of understanding. Typically, police do not get involved in day to day disciplinary issues. They don’t. They may get involved in a severe fight that gets to a point where school staff can’t handle it on their own. It’s not unheard of that a police officer would intervene in a more severe fight. That has happened in the past. We just have honest questions. We very much respect our relationship with MPD and our EROs. We just want to use this yet again as a test case as to when and to what extent police should be involved, and specifically decisions that get made related to charges, arrests and citations.”
The data isn’t all bad news.
According to the school district’s annual ERO report, the number of arrests and the number of incidents leading to these arrests have decreased over the past four school years by 21 percent. Additionally, the number of citations and the number of incidents leading to citations have decreased over the past four school years by 34 percent and 47 percent, respectively. And over the past four school years the number of arrests, citations, incidents leading to an arrest or citation, and truancy citations have remained relatively stable for females while the numbers have decreased substantially for males.
Still, even the lower overall number of arrests and citations disproportionately affect black students — a disparity that’s remained stable over the four years.
“It’s not about who’s to blame”
In 2002, the City of Madison pulled the plug on its four-year-old loitering ordinance when it became clear that 89 percent of arrests made under the ordinance were African American.
Howard declined to say whether the current situation might be handled similarly if there is no improvement.
“That would be speculative,” he said.
Howard said there are no immediate plans to cancel the contract at least in part because school officials and police alike are well aware of the disparities.
“I will tell you as the President of the Board of Education that we are looking at issues in a way that we’ve never looked at issues before,” he said. “We’re working a lot smarter than we’ve ever worked before.”
Madison Police Chief Mike Koval also acknowledges the disparities are too high.
“Despite some encouraging trends being chronicled in our schools, the disparities that are seen in the percentages of African-American students being arrested is still far too high,” Koval said in a statement emailed to Madison365. “If you believe (as I do) that the schools are a window on the future of the City as well as a microcosm of what’s taking place in our community, that variable is both consistent and disturbing relative to the demographics of Madison … MPD is an active participant in listening, learning, and offering a public safety perspective in the roll-out of two working committees that are currently meeting at the invitation of MMSD. We are hopeful that we can continue to make progress in finding common ground where a symbiotic understanding of the needs of the student can be balanced with the necessity to maintain and enhance public safety.”
That acknowledgment is the first step, said School Board candidate Ali Muldrow.
“We address it by acknowledging it,” Muldrow said. “We have to acknowledge who we are so that we can work to become who we want to be. I think the school board and superintendent are engaged and willing to think critically about that issue.”
She noted, as did others, that the disparity doesn’t mean the EROs themselves are intentionally discriminating against students of color.
“I think it’s a mistake to point at a police officer and say, ‘you’re the reason there’s racism,’” she said. “It’s not about who’s to blame at this point. It’s about how we work together to get the best possible outcome so that when a young person makes a mistake that doesn’t define them, how can we allow kids to recover from their mistakes. How do we work with police to ensure they’re not being utilized to discriminate against students? How do we ensure the punishment for a mistake by a child is appropriate? How do we empower the police to help us do that?
“I’m not against police,” she added. “I’m against anything that leads to racial disparities.”
In fact, many students have great respect and affection for the EROs, as Madison365 columnist Joshua Miller found when he spent a day with Madison West ERO Corey Saffold:
Their comments were universally positive.
“He’s our homie.”
“We love him.”
These comments came the day after a fairly public, volatile incident had occurred at the school, and their opinion was that his presence was both measured yet in firm control of a dangerous situation.
“He keeps fights from starting just because we all know he’s here,” they said.
They also said Saffold has gone out of his way to help students with issues outside of school. New drivers will get parking or speeding tickets, and he’ll help them avoid fines by taking educational driver safety classes.
“All about protection”
Howard thinks one approach will be to refocus EROs back toward student safety and away from student discipline.
Many school districts across the country began placing police in schools during the rash of school shootings in the late 1990s, with a significant increase coming after the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
Howard said the threat of gun violence in schools is as real now as it ever has been.
“It’s all about protection. The culture we live in now is such that there’s a large portion of the population who believes we should have more guns. Those are really the things I’m concerned about. That’s where I want us to be. I want our schools and our police in schools to act as a safety measure,” not necessarily a mechanism for breaking up fights and handling student discipline, he said.
In the meantime, Howard asks for patience.
“We think we’re seeing some positive trends,” he said. “We have to let it work its way out. Our approaches have only been in place for two or three years now. It’d be nice to turn these things around overnight but these things take time.”