Armed police could return to Milwaukee schools, school leaders worry about its effect

Those against plan say placing 25 officers in Milwaukee high schools could hurt teacher recruitment, target students of color

Empty halls as students work on laptops in a nearby classroom.
Empty halls as students work on laptops in a nearby classroom in Newlon Elementary School early Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, which is one of 55 Discovery Link sites set up by Denver Public Schools where students are participating in remote learning in this time of the new coronavirus from a school in Denver. David Zalubowski/AP Photo

Milwaukee school leaders and community advocates said a Republican plan to put police officers back in public schools would hurt teacher recruitment and target Black and Brown students.

Milwaukee Public Schools began removing police officers in 2016 and ended its contract with the Milwaukee Police Department in June 2020.

But tucked inside the sweeping state shared revenue proposal released last week is a plan to put armed officers back in Milwaukee schools.

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The Assembly bill requires Milwaukee Public Schools to have at least 25 school resource officers in place by Jan. 1, 2024. MPS would be required to pay for the officers and is the only school district that has that requirement.

The bill also requires Milwaukee and other high schools in the state to collect data about crimes on school property. Gov. Tony Evers vetoed a similar bill last year.

Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association President Amy Mizialko said students deserve professionals in the schools that improve academic, social and emotional outcomes.

“Having a fully staffed and fully resourced school with certified teachers, with nurses and social workers and counselors, is how and when students thrive,” Mizialko said. “Our position is not anti-police, it’s simply a practical position informed by facts.”

Mizialko said MPS currently has more than 350 teacher vacancies. The district is hiring about 140 international teachers to help fill the gap next year, but Mizialko said she worries adding armed officers to buildings will only exacerbate the teacher shortage.

“Teachers and public school workers have been and continue to clamor for investment in our students,” Mizialko said, adding that the presence of armed police in schools isn’t associated with greater safety or better teaching and learning for students.

“In contrast, what it actually shows is that armed police officers in our schools is associated with students being less likely to attend school, more likely that students will be suspended, and more likely that students will not graduate on time — including an increased number of arrests for non-violent disturbances,” she continued.

But at a Milwaukee Press Club event on Friday, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, told reporters the community wants police officers back in schools.

They like the idea of having people who are there in the schools to maintain order and to make sure that kids are safe,” Vos said. “I mean, we have concerns about all the things from school shootings to other crimes that occur. We’d like to make sure that parents know if those crimes occur on a school campus.”

Vos said he thinks putting officers back in schools would help with teacher recruitment efforts, and that the Assembly proposal lets the city and district determine which high schools should have officers.

He also said local officials support the idea of bringing police officers back to Milwaukee schools, although he wouldn’t confirm whether Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson asked for the measure.

Jeff Fleming, the mayor’s spokesperson, said Johnson asked the shared revenue bill to focus on fiscal issues. But added, “the mayor believes strongly that both the Milwaukee Police Department and the Milwaukee Public Schools need to be directly involved in any discussions about officers in schools. So far that has not happened to any significant extent.”

Police data obtained by the conservative Badger Institute found that in fall 2022, 34 MPS high schools made 778 calls for police service. That was a 21 percent increase from the 642 calls made in spring 2022 and 16.5 percent more calls than the 668 made in fall 2021.

A survey from the Wisconsin Professional Police Association conducted in February 2022 of 1,119 Wisconsin adults found two-thirds believed having police officers in public schools increased school safety. But a 2018 report from Leaders Igniting Transformation, or LIT, and the Center for Popular Democracy found police presence in Milwaukee schools and the district’s truancy program discriminated against Black and Brown students and students with disabilities.

The report found that despite Black students making up 55 percent of the population, they made up 84 percent of referrals to police.

Cendi Trujillo Tena, co-director of LIT who helped author the 2018 report, said putting police officers back in schools won’t make them safer or address the root causes of violence.

“Young people deserve a fully funded quality education, not criminalization,” Tena said during a press conference last week. “A shared revenue proposal expects us to sacrifice our most marginalized students for a few dollars. We will not be complicit in their attempt to criminalize Black, Brown and disabled youth.”