by Vince Bielski
Des Moines this week suffered its first fatal school shooting – reigniting a controversy in the city after the district removed police officers from its schools last year.
Police say a group of teenagers in vehicles outside Des Moines’ East High School fired multiple rounds onto school property on Monday, killing a 15-year-old boy and critically wounding two female students who were bystanders. Six teenagers, some of them current Des Moines students, have been charged with first-degree murder.
The deadly drive-by shooting now hovers over the decision by Des Moines officials, along with about 30 districts across the country, to exile cops from schools. These moves were part of the “defund the police” movement that erupted after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. It’s a movement now reeling in the face of violent crime surging nationwide, punctuated by President Biden’s State of the Union vow last week to “fund the police.”
But in schools, at least, a decision to bring back cops — or “school resource officers,” as they are called — isn’t a slam dunk in places where students of color had been arrested at higher rates than whites.
Des Moines (population: 214,000) provides a case in point. So far its district, half of whose students are black or Latino, has not followed schools from Maryland to California heeding pleas to restore the SROs. Instead, Iowa’s capital city is rolling out a new community-engagement safety plan to replace the cops.
And that infuriates parents alarmed by school mayhem long before Floyd’s death moved racial justice to the front burner — parents like Lindsay LaGrange. The Des Moines mom reached her breaking point in November after a student in her son’s middle school was found with an airsoft pellet gun on campus. “My son turned in this boy to the front office, and then later this boy beats up my son after school,” she said. “Almost every day he said there’s another fight at school. The kids are not safe.”
The Policing of America’s Schools
Des Moines joined the wave of districts that hired SROs after the rash of school shootings in the 1990s, a decade capped by the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. The killing of Sandy Hook elementary school children in Connecticut in 2012 spurred more districts to follow suit. As many as 25,000 law enforcement officers are working today in all types of schools, from rural to suburban to urban, said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO).
In Des Moines, SRO was a coveted job. Cops went through a competitive hiring process, which vetted them for the patience and savvy to communicate with teenagers, said Sergeant Paul Parizek of the Des Moines Police Department. Not every officer was a good fit. Those tapped went through training at NASRO, a crash course in seeing the world through the eyes of a teenager.
Des Moines started its SRO program about two decades ago. The district would eventually hire 10 SROs and a supervisor – one cop for each high school and four that were shared by the middle schools. Seventy percent of SROs were white men and women. Black men made up 30%.
Parizek said the public has harbored misconceptions about the approach. SROs weren’t placed in schools to jack up kids with a dime bag. Although an average of 287 Des Moines students were arrested annually in the years before the pandemic, the goal was prevention: to build relationships with students to deter them from trouble and to hear chatter about what’s going down in the schools. Who’s going to fight? Who has a gun?
“The guns we recovered in 2019, we recovered them before they made it inside the school door,” Parizek said. “And this was because of the relationships that SROs had with students who provided them with information.”
A Cop’s Story at Lincoln High
Officer Deb Vanvelzen fit the SRO mold. She was a school teacher with a passion for working with students before becoming a cop and then an SRO from 2005 to 2019, mostly at Lincoln High.
In addition to performing typical police duties, such as breaking up fights and disposing of drugs, Vanvelzen aimed to be part of the Lincoln community. She advised teachers on how to keep classrooms safe. She spoke with parents about how to address problems with their children. She gave students lunch money and clothing her own kids outgrew. A former high school athlete, the white cop played hoops in the gym (and in uniform) with students and ate lunch in the cafeteria with kids of color to break the ice. They talked about clothing styles.
For a few years she sent every student a birthday card. At graduation, Vanvelzen shook everyone’s hand.
The payoff? “Once the students saw me as trustworthy, they started talking to me and I found out things before they happened and exploded,” she said. “Sometimes kids talked to me to keep their friends safe.”
A few years ago, a Lincoln student approached Vanvelzen with a tip about a weapon. The day before, a teen from a different school involved in a fight across the street from Lincoln had a gun. Vanzelzen then relayed the tip to the SRO at that student’s school.
“So that SRO sees the kid in the hallway, gets him into his office, and lo and behold, he still has the gun,” she said.
Portilda Sayon, a junior at Lincoln, said some students felt safer because of the SROs. Sayon got to know Dusty Chapline, Vanvelzen’s replacement, after Sayon had a verbal spat with other girls. The two talked a lot about Sayon’s emotional problems and issues at home. “Chappie helped me tremendously,” Sayon said.
Some students, however, never took to the SROs. “They don’t like cops because they had a bad experience with them before,” Sayon said.
Vanvelzen said that she, in collaboration with the Lincoln staff, “absolutely” made the school safer. But she notes the challenge in assessing the effectiveness of SROs. There’s no way to count the number of incidents that did not happen because of her presence at Lincoln.
The statistics are hard to interpret: there were 1,652 reported acts of physical aggression in the Des Moines middle and high schools in fiscal 2019. That number was fairly steady in the few years before SROs were removed. So perhaps the cops were keeping a lid on violence but not significantly reducing it.
When officials examined the data, they couldn’t come to a definitive conclusion about SROs. “That’s the essential question, but we really couldn’t answer it with confidence that SROs were or weren’t making schools safer,” said Jake Troja, the district director of school climate transformation.
How Two Students Expelled the SROs
The campaign to remove the police was led by two Des Moines students at East High School, Endi Montalvo-Martinez and Lyric Sellers. While researching racial equity for a leadership class, Montalvo-Martinez, then a junior, learned about the controversy surrounding SROs in other cities. It meshed with the experience of some of his friends who believed racism had led SROs to stop them and search their bags.
So Montalvo-Martinez and Sellers, then a sophomore, wrote a sweeping anti-racist proposal in early 2020 to compel the district to remove the police, redesign its Eurocentric curriculum and hire more teachers of color.
When the duo met with Superintendent Thomas Ahart, he said no. “He made excuses like there’s no funding, we can’t invest in these things,” said Montalvo-Martinez.
Soon after that rejection, Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis ignited protests, even in quiet Des Moines, where demonstrators clashed with cops, exchanging bricks and bottles for tear gas in May of 2020. The following month, Ahart sent a letter to families, titled “We ALL Must Be Actively ANTI-Racist.”
Montalvo-Martinez said the district’s new anti-racist pledge gave the two students more political leverage, but they still needed tactical advice on how to sway administrators and board members. Jaylen Cavil, a defund the police advocate with the Black Liberation Movement and candidate for the Iowa House, became a key adviser.
Montalvo-Martinez and Sellers gathered arrest data from the Des Moines human rights department and student testimonials about being traumatized by SROs before making presentations to principals, teachers and school board members individually. They encountered some resistance from school staff, but in their second meeting with the superintendent, Ahart agreed that the SROs must go. “Ahart did a 180,” Montalvo-Martinez said.
But Ahart knew that most parents probably wouldn’t back his decision. In a survey by the district, a majority of parents (66%) and students (53%) had said they supported having police in schools.
In the heated racial politics of the moment, the arrest data – blacks students were twice as likely to be involved with a SRO than whites – became a rallying point. Montalvo-Martinez and other activists said it showed that the cops were biased and targeted blacks for arrest.
The cops, however, generally didn’t patrol the halls and playgrounds looking to make arrests. The vast majority of arrests started with calls for help to SROs from school administrators, who were identifying the incidents and misbehaving students that they wanted the cops to handle, district officials say. “I want to make clear that SROs were not the problem even though it comes off in the media that way,” Troja said. “They were summoned” to the scene.
In February 2021, the school board voted unanimously to end the SRO program. “Kudos to these two students for really being intentional around the process and information and lining up support on this issue,” said Teree Caldwell-Johnson, vice chair of the school board.
Schools Take On Violence Control
Following the lead of other districts, Des Moines developed a SRO replacement plan for schools to handle most of the behavior problems, other than serious crimes such as possession of a weapon. This way, students would avoid the taint of a police record that could harm their job prospects after graduation.
Officials also argued that they could improve school safety if the $900,000 spent on SROs was redeployed in support of a new, community-based approach. That included bringing community organizations like Dads on a Mission – a group of local fathers who want to have a positive influence on students – into the schools. Hall monitors were hired so high schools now have five of them rather than one SRO. And the district has been rolling out a restorative justice program, where students hash out their conflicts in discussion groups in hopes of overcoming them – a practice that has had mixed results in other districts around the country.
“We were calling the SROs for many incidents, like physical fights in the hallways, that we could have handled ourselves,” Troja said. “Now we are approaching safety differently by allocating funds to different resources to try to get better results.”
The new approach didn’t get off to a good start. Last fall, after 16,000 middle and high school students returned to classrooms full-time in Des Moines, officials were caught off guard by the spike in fighting and disruptive behavior. The removal of the SROs didn’t cause the surge in violence, but nor were the cops readily available to tamp it down.
Last September, there were 83 referrals for fighting in Des Moines’ six high schools compared with 59 in the same month in 2019 – a pattern of monthly increases that continued through December. Students posted numerous disturbing videos on Snapchat of boys and girls aggressively attacking each other at different schools, with punches to the head, kicks to the stomach and stomps on the chest.
Then there’s the matter of guns. Last year, a student brought a loaded 9mm pistol into Lincoln High, alarming parents but not surprising them. From 2016 to 2020, the staff and SROs confiscated 20 lethal weapons from students, mostly loaded guns, in this school district of 32,000 students. Des Moines police say a number of gun shots have been fired near schools that have been linked to students, but without any fatalities.
In addition to guns, students have access to a wide arsenal of weapons. In December, a Lincoln student who had been bullied brought a taser to school and used it when he was attacked by others bearing brass knuckles and pepper spray.
Backlash at the School Board
Aveantai Smith moved from Arlington, Texas, to Des Moines, where she had lived about 17 years ago, assuming the schools were as safe as she remembered. Instead, she has been horrified by the brutality that her son and daughter have encountered at Lincoln High.
Smith met with the principal, who said he’s doing everything he can to control the surge in violence. But that didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. She pulled her daughter out of Lincoln and sent her back to Texas to live with her grandmother. Her son, a football player who isn’t easily intimidated, remains at the school.
“It’s literally outrageous,” said Smith, herself a college nursing student. “The school is not safe and secure. The fighting is on a whole different level. I’m scared to send my kids to school every single day.”
By December a backlash was underway, with Des Moines parents calling for a return of the SROs in media interviews. The controversy came to a head at a Dec. 7 school board meeting.
LaGrange, whose son Jeremiah was attacked by another student, has been organizing other parents on social media behind the SRO cause. She bluntly told board members during the meeting to “wake up” to the reality of the rise in violence and restore the police program to protect students.
Critics of SROs also spoke up at the meeting, repeating the story line about racist police practices. A public school employee told the board that the police were removed for “targeting black children” and that the racist practice would return with the SROs. An activist with the Young Women’s Resource Center urged the officials to reject the “dangerous narrative” pushed by local TV station KCCI in its “campaign against black children, framing them as sources of violence within our schools.” But KCCI hasn’t singled out black students in its coverage.
Ten days later, Superintendent Ahart was forced to crack down on students, announcing a tougher suspension policy for fighting in a letter to families. After a first fight, students can stay in school and try to resolve the conflict. After a second, they shift to 30 school days of remote virtual learning with counseling to get to the root of the problem. A third fight means two months of virtual instruction.
With the return of some old school discipline, the number of reported high school fights dropped to 47 in January compared with 67 in the same month of 2020.
But Ahart, who announced his resignation on Feb. 28, was silent on the question of bringing back SROs. Would having cops on-site who can quickly respond to incidents like the brawl outside of Lincoln High in September also make a difference?
“Yes, without SROs we lose that immediate access to an officer,” Troja said. “Does that have benefits? It does. But do those benefits outweigh the benefits that we gain now with our new approach? I don’t think so, or we wouldn’t have gone down this path.”
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Vince Bielski contributes to RealClearInvestigations.
Photo “crime scene” by Des Moines Police.