A San Antonio Independent School District police vehicle is parked outside Brackenridge High School.
A San Antonio Independent School District police vehicle is parked outside Brackenridge High School. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Calls throughout the nation to defund the police have reverberated in one of San Antonio’s largest school districts, as several social justice groups called on San Antonio Independent School District to divert resources from its police force and hire more mental health professionals and social workers.

In a letter to SAISD leadership, the four organizations cite several examples in which police presence in the district brought what they perceived to be unwarranted use of force.

Children’s Defense Fund Texas, Disability Rights Texas, Texas Appleseed, and the Earl Carl Institute at Texas Southern University sent the letter to Superintendent Pedro Martinez and members of SAISD’s board at a time when school systems across the country are examining their relationship with police departments in the wake of George Floyd’s death and widespread protests against police brutality.

The organizations also sent similar letters to other large districts throughout the state.

About four years ago, a cell phone video captured an incident at Rhodes Middle School where an SAISD police officer slammed a 12-year-old student to the ground. The district investigated the situation and fired the officer responsible, saying he demonstrated an unwarranted use of force.

Last year, an SAISD parent claimed a district officer threw her Lanier High School student to the ground, arrested him, and took him to the Bexar County detention center after the student didn’t hear officers trying to get his attention as he left campus. The school district disputed the parent’s description of the incident, detailing a situation where the student pulled two officers to the ground as they attempted to make an arrest.

In January, police arrested 13 Davis Middle School students after fights broke out on campus, resulting in increased police presence at the school.

Since the start of June, the school board in Minneapolis voted to end its contract with the city’s police department and the superintendent of Portland Public Schools said he would discontinue the presence of school resource officers.

“We urge SAISD to divest from school policing and allocate any available resources instead to hire and train mental health counselors and social workers to handle instances of bullying, harassment, disruptiveness, vandalism, drug and alcohol abuse, and other non-violence incidents,” the letter to SAISD states. “In order for this to work, SAISD must adequately fund these additional positions and programs.”

In response to the four organizations’ letter, SAISD spokeswoman Leslie Price told the Rivard Report the district is committed to the use of restorative justice practices as reflected in a newly passed code of conduct, but does not plan to eliminate the police department. Restorative justice is an approach to discipline that focuses on learning rather than punishment.

Members of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel also made statements to the school board this week, asking trustees to reevaluate student discipline policies in line with recommendations made by the ACLU of Texas, Texas Organizing Project, and other organizations last August. One of the recommendations asks the district to limit the role of police officers on campuses to law enforcement investigations.

Representatives from the social justice organizations wrote in their Monday letter that for most of American history, schools did not maintain their own law enforcement departments, instead choosing to rely on “natural and educational interventions and discipline practices.” The organizations recommend districts rely on tiered intervention systems as part of discipline practices and only make calls to outside police in “rare emergencies that necessitate law enforcement involvement.”

In a statement responding to the letter, Price cited recent actions taken by the district to “create a positive, safe, and effective learning environment for students adults,” including the creation of a Student Bill of Rights.

SAISD’s board adopted the Student Bill of Rights in November. The document outlines 10 rights including that students have a right to a safe, caring, and welcoming school environment, the right to student voice so their ideas and opinions are heard and considered, and the right to consistent and equitable discipline practices.

In February, high school students spoke at a school board meeting, asking for further revisions to the bill of rights and code of conduct. Some of the students who spoke asked campuses to stop calling police officers for help on discipline issues.

The board did not incorporate their recommendations into the documents at the time. At the February meeting, Superintendent Martinez asked students to meet with him to discuss the issue further.

District disciplinary initiatives

There are ongoing efforts to improve SAISD’s discipline policies, an SAISD spokeswoman said. The district continues to implement training and coaching at campuses for staff and recently created a Care team, which is tasked with alleviating the need for police officers and stepping in to prevent a student from harming themselves or others.

The Care team brings together experts in mental health who are skilled in responding in crisis situations, Price said.

Luke Amphlett, an Alliance member who is part of PODER, the Alliance’s social justice caucus, described the creation of the Care team as something to celebrate. However, he said that the discussion about failures in disciplinary action often result in SAISD announcing a new initiative.

“What it really situates us in is a diagnosis that the fact that our students currently fail. Our district currently fails too many students who are really high-needs,” Amphlett said. “The reality is there have been people in decision-making positions of power for a very long time, and they are just now getting to some of these issues.”

Luke Amphlett, social studies teacher at Burbank High School.
Luke Amphlett, social studies teacher at Burbank High School and Alliance member. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The most recent data available through the Office of Civil Rights is from 2015. It shows that 15.4 percent of the students disciplined with out-of-school suspensions were black, but only 6.4 percent of the district’s enrollment was black at the time. Referrals to law enforcement followed a similar pattern: 14.4 percent of the 939 students referred were black.

Amphlett cited these statistics as evidence that police presence in schools means young people of color are more likely to be arrested and moved into the school-to-prison pipeline.

“It’s time to break – completely – with the idea of policing youth in our schools,” Amphlett said in a statement to the board. “Over the last year, students, educators, and experts from the ACLU, Texas Appleseed, and Texas Criminal Justice Coalition have called for a transformation in the way that our district polices and disciplines young people. Their calls have been ignored by our district’s leaders.”

The problem doesn’t have an easy fix, Amphlett said, but noted that it is important to listen to organizations like the ones he referenced and the other groups who wrote to SAISD on Monday. They are experts on the subject, he said.

More support for counseling

The four groups recommended that any funds divested from the SAISD police department should be moved to support the creation of more mental health counseling positions.

SAISD, a 48,000-student district, employs 135 school counselors, 34 licensed specialists in school psychology, and 34 social workers, Price said.

“As part of this support system, we have a beneficial alliance with our District police to help us create a safe and secure environment for students and employees,” Price wrote in an email. “Currently, we have 60 officers who have forged relationships and partnerships within our school community, including holding forums for community members, and mentoring, and other activities with our students.”

“We do not plan to eliminate the police department. As part of our ongoing focus and commitment to restorative practices, we will continue to work collaboratively to determine how our police officers can best support the SAISD community.”

Board President Patti Radle emphasized the district’s commitment to restorative justice practices and said SAISD is investing in teacher training to support that effort.

Radle, who describes herself as a pacifist, characterized SAISD’s Police Chief Jose “Joe” Curiel as compassionate with a focus on student needs.

“We have room for improvement, and we hope to improve and get to a point where a student always recognizes a police officer as someone who is going to help them, not someone who is going to threaten them,” Radle said. “But we’re on this path, and we have been on this path.”

Radle called the 2016 incident at Rhodes Middle School horrific. She said it has been “top of mind” when the board thinks about policing and the need for officers to forge goodwill with students.

The board president took issue with some of the statements made by members of the Alliance, saying they weren’t honest about the ways SAISD has remained committed to improving campus environments. Radle said the district is vigilant about discussing and reevaluating discipline issues and will continue to be moving forward.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.