Mercedes Yarbrough, center, takes her seat after speaking at a St. Paul school board meeting. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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What should safety look like in St. Paul’s public schools?

Should schools have police officers? Or are there other, better ways to keep students and staff safe?

Or is the answer a mix of both?

It was not the first time St. Paul students, parents, and educators had wrestled with those questions. But it was the first time they had the opportunity to share their thoughts with the school board since the fatal stabbing of 15-year-old Devin Scott inside Harding High School on February 10. A 16-year-old classmate has been charged with second-degree murder in Devin’s death.

Devin’s killing came less than a month after a 16-year-old boy was shot in the head at the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center, across from St. Paul’s Central High School. A 26-year-old recreation center employee faces charges of second-degree attempted murder in that case. The teenager’s family is raising funds for his recovery.

The two incidents, occurring amid growing concerns from students and staff about fights and lockdowns in schools, left St. Paul deeply shaken. 

On Tuesday night, snow fell outside the district headquarters, first gently, then faster, the very beginning of what was predicted to be a historic winter storm. Despite the weather, dozens of parents, students, and educators filled the board meeting room to share their thoughts and to listen to each other.

Carmella Doby, whose nephew attends Humboldt High School, said she had been hearing about frequent lockdowns at school. She was not sure what steps she thought the district should take. But she said more representation for people of color in schools, including more Black teachers, would help with safety.

When teachers don’t reflect students, “It’s like showing them the world and then saying, ‘You can’t,’” Doby said. “‘This is for other people, not people that look like you.’”

The Reverend Gregory Oats, pastor at Kingdom Builders Worship Center in St. Paul, wore a button for ISAIAH, a progressive interfaith group. He said he came to listen and to learn how to be part of the solution.

“I’m really interested in mentoring, programming after school,” he said. “There’s a need. If we had some things like that in place, a lot of things wouldn’t happen.”

Mercedes Yarbrough, a behavior intervention specialist at Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion Academy, wore a T-shirt with the cover design for one of the Black history comic books she wrote. She was there to talk about spreading love and positivity, she said. 

As a school behavior intervention specialist, Mercedes has noticed that kids are demonstrating more aggression and shorter attention spans, both of which she attributes to increased technology use. She’s also seeing lower self-esteem and more talk of suicide.

“What I do is just show more love, and listen to them,” she said. “Lots of hugs are given when asked. High-fives. Positive encouragement. Using whatever mishaps they have in the day as teaching moments, and making them not feel judged or that they’re bad.”

“What I do is just show more love, and listen to them. Lots of hugs are given when asked. High-fives. Positive encouragement. Using whatever mishaps they have in a day as teaching moments, and making them not feel judged or that they’re bad.”

Mercedes Yarbrough, behavior intervention specialist at Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion Academy

The teenager who was shot and wounded at the Jimmy Lee Recreation Center was Mercedes’ brother. She told a Sahan Journal reporter she didn’t want to talk about how he was doing. For the moment, she was preparing to speak to the school board: “Not being emotional, so my message can be heard,” she said.

‘We are in this together’

School safety was not on the official school board agenda, but the topic dominated the meeting’s public comment section. One major discussion: whether the district should bring back school resource officers—that is, police in the schools.

Educators at the school board meeting hold up signs calling for safe schools. Everyone who spoke at the school board meeting agreed school safety was a priority, but they had varying ideas about how to get there. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

In June 2020, following pressure from students of color, the school board voted to end its contract with the St. Paul Police Department to provide school resource officers—police officers stationed inside of schools. 

The move came in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd a few miles away in Minneapolis. And it came nearly a year before most students returned to in-person learning, with atrophied social skills and increased mental health problems.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and Floyd’s murder, violent crime has risen across the country, including in the Twin Cities. And the ripple effects of that rise in crime are being felt in schools.

Last week, St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard signaled a willingness to bring police back to schools. On February 14, the district announced that five high schools would have police officers stationed outside the buildings on a short-term basis, with the option to extend the arrangement. In a news conference that day, Gothard stressed that although the school district no longer has a contract with the Police Department, the relationship never ended.

“What the community doesn’t see is the incredible work and communication that goes on behind the scenes between our school sites, district, and the police, and between the Police Department and our varied partners throughout the community, to make sure that we are staying safe, that we are communicating, that we are in this together,” he said.

Gothard said he would like to “redefine” a formal partnership between the school district and police department, if all parties agree to it. He stressed that would not mean bringing back school resource officers—called SROs—the same way they were in buildings during the 2019–2020 school year.

“We’re not looking to go back and turn on a light switch or dust something off that comes out of the broom closet,” said Axel Henry, the St. Paul police chief, at the news conference. “The current model, obviously, is something that we need to improve. So we’re going to build that future model.”

We’re not looking to go back and turn on a light switch or dust something off that comes out of the broom closet. The current model, obviously, is something that we need to improve. So we’re going to build that future model.

St. Paul police chief axel henry

What that model or partnership looks like is not yet clear. And any new contract with the police would come to the school board for approval.

St. Paul school board members hear from former state Representative—and former district employee—John Thompson. Thompson urged the school board to listen to students. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

‘Change is coming, and I’m going to be part of that change’

School board members took their seats behind the dais. Board member Uriah Ward wore a Harding High School sweatshirt.

The first speaker was Valeria Barrios Sanchez, a 17-year-old senior at Harding.

“I feel like I’m putting myself at risk every time I step into the school,” she said, her voice shaking. “As a freshman, I experienced having [school resource officers] in the school building. That was a safe environment, and that seems like an eternity ago. Now I am a senior, and this is supposed to be my most memorable year. It will be, but unfortunately, I have to remember it as the year I witnessed a homicide.”

Valeria Barrios Sanchez, a 17-year-old senior at Harding, spoke in support of school resource officers. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Ben Wright, the father of a 2022 Central graduate and a volunteer track coach, also spoke in support of bringing back school resource officers. Without increasing safety, he said, the district will continue to lose students.

“For sure, there is a school-to-prison pipeline,” he said. “There’s also a school, to hospital, to morgue pipeline.”

Khulia Pringle, the Minnesota state director for the National Parents Union, spoke against deploying school resource officers.

“Families have shared with me that they do not trust the police departments in their neighborhoods, and especially not around their most precious assets,” she said. “St. Paul Public Schools has an obligation to promote a healthy development of each one of its students, which includes protecting them from the impact of systemic racism to the greatest extent possible while they are at school.” 

Eighteen-year-old Chineze Okolo, who attended St. Paul Public Schools until earlier this month, said she also opposes putting officers in schools. “I did not like SROs and I still do not like or agree with SROs,” she said. She remembered feeling uncomfortable seeing police or security guards with weapons in the halls.

“Education should not be militarized,” Chineze added.

Chineze Okolo, 18, told Sahan Journal she once nearly got suspended over a disagreement with a police officer about crossing the street near her high school. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Then Mercedes spoke.

“What is the definition of love?” she asked the school board and the crowd. “To me, love is safe. This speaks volumes, as schools should be safe, but aren’t. It shows that there’s no love being shown in these schools.”

What is the definition of love? To me, love is safe. This speaks volumes, as schools should be safe, but aren’t. It shows that there’s no love being shown in these schools.

Mercedes Yarbrough, behavior intervention specialist at Jie Ming Mandarin Immersion Academy

Schools need more community partnerships with organizations that reflect the student body “and can get through to these kids,” she said. “We need people in our buildings that care and show love to these kids, teaching them through their mishaps and giving them a chance to grow. [School resource officers] are not always the solution. We need people who will build relationships, not just reinforce negative scenarios.

“My brother was the victim,” Mercedes said, and paused as she choked up and collected her words.

“From the Jimmy Lee incident,” she continued, her voice filling with tears. “And this happened by a staff member whose job was to look after the youth.”

Mercedes Yarbrough addresses the St. Paul school board. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Police and teachers are also supposed to look after people, she added. But, she said, they do not always do their jobs properly—and leaders don’t always listen when students and educators raise alarms.

“Start listening to your staff and students,” she said. “I for one know that I’m not being listened to. I’ve emailed. I show up to meetings. It’s got to the point where I create my own culturally relevant curriculum to empower kids of color through their history from a positive lens, because the education system is not doing it. Y’all don’t listen, so I’m doing it myself. 

“All I know is change is coming,” Mercedes concluded. “And I’m going to be a part of that change.”

She was the only speaker whose words elicited cheers, finger snaps, and applause from the crowd.

A focus on relationships

In the hallway after her speech to the school board, Mercedes said she is not necessarily opposed to the use of school resource officers. But the conversation’s focus on whether or not to have police in schools misses the point, she said. What schools need, Mercedes said, is adults who build trusting relationships with students. Those adults could have different job titles—perhaps including police officers—as long as they are willing and able to build those relationships.

But to figure out effective next steps, she said, the district will need to listen to its students and staff—especially those of color.

Mercedes Yarbrough with two of her sons, holding up the cover art for her latest Black to the Future comic book, after speaking at the school board meeting. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

School leaders have not outlined a timeline for making any decisions, but said Tuesday that they hope to hear more from community members in coming weeks. After the 45-minute public-comment period concluded, the educators, staff, and students who had packed the boardroom filed out, hoping to get home safely in the snow.

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...