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Editorial: History shows that removing police from our schools is reckless

As protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer turn to “defunding” police departments and then to removing police presence from schools, we would do well to remember a few names:

• Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. The heavily armed seniors killed a dozen students and a teacher at Columbine High in Colorado in 1999. Another 21 were injured by gunfire. The pair committed suicide in the school library.

• Nikolas Cruz. The 19-year-old former student was dropped off at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida., in 2018. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle, he killed 17 and injured 17 others. He fled, was ultimately arrested, and was charged with 17 counts of murder.

• William Atchison. The 21-year-old former student walked into Aztec High in 2017 with a 9 mm Glock. He killed two students and took his own life as police closed in.

While there are many positives to having a police presence in our schools – a crucial element of “community policing” – providing a safe and secure environment tops the list.

Our elected officials and administrators at the Albuquerque Public Schools have long recognized that. APS has its own police force consisting of 58 sworn officers – who carry weapons – and 70 civilian service aides who do not. The plainclothes CSAs primarily work in elementary and middle schools, with sworn officers in high schools and on patrol duties. Albuquerque Police Department officers and Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies are at some high schools.

Those calling for their removal, including University of New Mexico law professor Maryam Ahranjani, contend the $6.5 million APS spends on police would be better used for teacher training, social workers and programs.

“There’s a lot of unfortunate downstream negative repercussions for children from having police officers in schools,” she wrote to the school district leadership.

Of course if you continue to re-enforce the message police are bad, that likely affects how they are viewed by kids. But many who actually work in schools have a different take.

Brad Winter, a former APS assistant principal, chief operating officer and superintendent, says students often forge positive relationships with officers. One former school board member says having the officers is a positive – not a threat – and a lot of good comes from it.

“The primary responsibility of a school police officer is to maintain order and security … while nurturing positive and respectful relationships with students,” says APS spokeswoman Monica Armenta. APS police are trained in mediation techniques and restorative justice. Arrests, she says, are a “last resort” but necessary when “guns are found on campuses or lives are threatened.” APS police arrested a total of seven students last school year.

APS is huge. Its police force is responsible for the safety of more than 140 campuses, 80,000 students and thousands of teachers and staff. The Board of Education voted in 2007 to allow officers to carry weapons. In the wake of school shootings, APS has calculated it needs $13.2 million in security upgrades for about 70 schools. The proposals range from classroom door locks and fencing to card-key access.

School safety isn’t a social science project. We need trained officers who can practice de-escalation and restorative justice and stand between students and a dangerous assailant. And it’s important young people are exposed to police in a nonconfrontational setting, where the daily message is they are there to ensure everyone’s safety.

APS’ administration and board should look at the evidence and track record, make needed improvements and reject the dangerous “defund” mantra in our schools.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.