After months of review, the Pinellas County School Board on Tuesday approved a new working agreement with 13 law enforcement agencies that operate inside the schools.
Originally set for adoption in February, the document came under fire from community groups, including the local NAACP chapter, for being devised without community input. Some civic leaders contended the proposal would lead to overpolicing of students in a district where Black children have been arrested at disproportionate rates.
James Michael Shaw Jr., an attorney working with some of the people with concerns, asked the board to consider postponing its planned vote. He contended that even after district staff received public input on the item, incorporating some of the ideas presented, the final version was crafted “behind closed doors” with too much reliance on law enforcement wishes.
It’s important, Shaw said, for school discipline issues to be handled by teachers and administrators, and not police. He suggested the document needed further review to ensure that’s the case.
Parent Shauntel Smith also called on the board to table the item.
“I send my daughter to school to be educated, not policed,” Smith said.
Board member Caprice Edmond removed the item from the consent agenda, which is considered without discussion, so she could ask more questions about the proposal. She wanted to know, for instance, whether the agreement would allow for police officers to intervene in small matters such as accusations over stolen pencils, as some members of the public alleged.
District police chief Luke Williams aimed to allay such concerns.
He stressed that “minor misconduct” would be handled through the code of conduct and not police action. He called such worries “simplistic,” saying the officers have no interest in creating law enforcement records for children over such matters.
In fact, Williams said, the men and women who work as school resource officers have the jobs because they want to mentor children and help them, not arrest them.
“We’re not in the schools to take your children to jail,” he said. “There’s nothing nefarious about the agreement, nothing nefarious about what we’re trying to do.”
He acknowledged the agreement isn’t perfect, but said it takes the district further down the road toward a better way of handling police issues in schools. It would prevent officers from interrogating children in school over incidents that occurred outside school, for instance, he said. It also would ban racial profiling and ensure that parents are notified if their children are interviewed by an officer.
Even with such assurances, Edmond wanted more guarantees that the public and board would be able to make sure the efforts have the intended effect. She called on the staff to schedule twice-a-year reviews of the implementation for both the community and the board, something superintendent Mike Grego agreed to.
The public should be engaged, Edmond said. “Lean on them for input.”
The board unanimously approved the agreement. Afterward, Trenia Cox, an officer for the NAACP of St. Petersburg, encouraged the district to follow through on the regular public reviews.
“It’s about stakeholders working together,” Cox said. “We all have a contribution to make.”
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