PROVIDENCE — Thirty teenagers, members of the Providence Student Union, rallied at City Hall Wednesday to demand the removal of police officers from their high schools.
The student rights organization also called for an increase in guidance counselors and a shift toward restorative justice, which uses dialogue and understanding to resolve disciplinary issues. Instead of relying on school resource officers, students asked for safety teams whose members are trained in deescalation techniques and conflict resolution.
“Today, I am fighting for every student ever pinned down, arrested or harassed by school resource officers,” said student Jayson Rodriguez. “We don’t need SROs. We need more counselors. We need more nurses. We need more mental health providers. We need more social workers.”
“Imagine being in Jayson’s shoes,” said Paul Taverez, an adult organizer for the Providence Student Union. “Imagine being very afraid but not being able to name what that fear is. To those who can’t imagine a world without police in the schools, the students say, ‘There is such a future.'”
Last January, more than 1,000 Providence high school students walked out of class and marched on the State House to protest Donald Trump’s inauguration, whose positions on immigration, LGBTQ issues and guns have stirred deep opposition, especially in the wake of the Parkland, Florida school shooting.
Students, in previous interviews, have said the presence of police officers in schools makes them feel uneasy. They feel that the police view them as criminals. They don’t feel that the officers are on their side. Many of these same students leave school and go back to neighborhoods where the police are perceived as adversaries, students have said.
“The SRO’s main purpose is harassing people and punishing people,” said Ahmed Sesay, a senior at Classical High School. “What I’d love to see is a focus on how to engage students. When we have strong system of support, students are more engaged. A feeling of safety comes from a sense of community.”
Students need to feel that the adults have their backs, he said. They need to be able to go to staff who are trained to deal with the social and emotional issues associated with adolescence.
This September, a 15-year-old Central High School student was shot and killed in front of a Providence Career and Technical Academy. The victim, William Parsons, was an innocent bystander. The shooting sparked an outpouring of grief and began a conversation about reaching students before their alienation turns into violence.
Asked whether officers were needed to keep schools safe, one student said the outcome this fall would have been the same, with or without a police officer on campus.
Supt. Christopher N. Maher said, “The safety and security of our students are our top priority in the Providence Public School District. We rely on the specially trained School Resource Officers not only to ensure a safe environment in emergency situations but also to build strong, positive relationships with our students. SROs are valued members of our community.
“I met with the PSU on this issue, heard their concerns, and asked them for additional information,” he said. “I look forward to meeting with them again to continue the discussion.”
Providence City Councilor Nirva LaFortune attended the rally and said she would submit a proposed ordinance that addresses some of the students’ concerns. She said it was too early to say whether that bill would include removing school resource officers from schools.
“My goal is to ensure that these students have a seat at the able,” she said.
The protest ended with a student cutting a mock “school-to-prison” pipeline.