ACLU calls out Cincinnati schools, police for ‘over-policing,’ lack of accountability
School lockers in a hallway. Getty Images.
A new study by the ACLU of Ohio recommended that the Cincinnati Public Schools system address what they found as inequity and “exclusionary discipline disparities,” in part by breaking ties with the city’s police department.
The ACLU and its Campaign for Smart Justice partnered with the Young Activists Coalition to research disciplinary practices at the school from 2021 to 2022, and said the research showed “racially disparate discipline” in the schools, “perpetuating harm and reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline.”
The research was done through polling of 400 parents and more than 100 recent graduates, a majority of whom (53% of parents and 65% of recent grads) said they did not support the current contract between the school and the Cincinnati Police Department, according to the study.
The study found that Black students were 21 times more likely to be put in “alternative placement” centers at CPS, and 10.5 times more likely to be put in an “alternative learning center,” away from their peers.
“The contract between the police and the district grants CPD unilateral power over school policing, while CPS remains in the dark,” the ACLU and YAC concluded.
Parents and grads said they would like to see modifications to the police contract “to reform the use of force guidelines, training and accountability,” according to the ACLU/YAC findings.
“Removing children from the learning environment is yet another way that Black, Brown and disabled children are funneled into negative interactions with law enforcement at a young age, far too often resulting in arrest and the irreparable consequences of getting caught up in the mass incarceration system,” said Elena Thompson, an ACLU Ohio legal fellow, in announcing the study.
Bella Gordo, president of the YAC, said the group has “continually” made the district aware of racial disparities it has found within the schools through “direct appeals, protests and many other methods.”
“We will not rest until the district fully commits to anti-racism through the replacement of exclusionary discipline with restorative practices and the ending of the relationship between the Cincinnati Police Department and the Cincinnati Public Schools,” Gordo said in a statement.
Other recommendations made in the study included investment in mental health services within the schools, including an increased amount of counselors and social workers within the district.
Cincinnati Public Schools said it is “aware of existing disparities, both nationally and locally, in the way students of color are disciplined.”
Superintendent Iranetta Wright said she plans to focus on student discipline as one of the assessments she’ll make in her first 100 days.
“We need to place a stronger emphasis on implementing and monitoring our restorative justice program at every school, build more social emotional learning lessons into the curriculum, better leverage our mental health professionals and social workers at every school, and participate in joint training with SROs to ensure they better understand their roles in our schools,” Wright said in a statement to the OCJ.
But placing the blame on school resource officers as a root cause of the “school-to-prison pipeline” fails to address “the multiple needs and challenges that occur outside of school,” the district argued.
SROs are not responsible for things like emergency removals, suspensions and/or expulsions, a statement from the district explained.
CPD did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the OCJ.
Previous research done by the groups to analyze data from 2016 to 2021 showed Black students at the school district were five times more likely to face “exclusionary discipline than their white peers.”
That study used public records requests with the police department and the school district to look at policies and data “relating to (school resource officers) and student discipline” since 2016, and the memorandum of understanding between the police and the school.
The data showed 63% of CPS made up of Black students, but also made up 93% of out-of-school suspensions and 89% of police referrals.
“The vast majority of school incidents can and should be handled by teachers or school administrators and should not merit police intervention,” Thompson said.
State Sen. Cecil Thomas, D-Avondale, who worked on the Cincinnati police force for nearly 30 years, agreed that the presence of more mental health counselors should be a goal for the school system, though he disagreed with removing police officers from the schools.
“I would say let’s not take officers out of the schools, I would say let’s look at how we can help the students,” Thomas told the OCJ. “It lends an opportunity to schools to look at the training and the overall intent of having the officers in the schools.”
Thomas said he hadn’t had a chance to take a “deep dive” into the data in the report, but he was hopeful that the study could be used as the school board begins to collaborate with a newly-hired superintendent.
“Everything in the report raises red flags, and those red flags need to be given a significant amount of attention,” Thomas said.
Thomas is hoping to garner bipartisan support for a bill he’s cosponsoring with state Sen. Tina Maharath, D-Canal Winchester, that would raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm to 21, but also increase funding for Ohio Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports grants, expanding the program to include all grade-levels. The OPBIS program is conducted through the Ohio Department of Education.
A new law that allows teachers to bring weapons into schools won’t help the situation in Cincinnati schools, according to Thomas. Training and other alternative interaction methods for students are much preferred to an increase in the amount of weapons the school contains, he said.
“My argument has always been instead of arming teachers with guns, arm the schools with more counselors,” Thomas said.
Gov. Mike DeWine committed $100 million in the most recent capital budget to “school safety grants,” but it’s not clear if those grants could be used for counselors or other mental health services.
A new “student safety advisory council,” empaneled last week by the governor’s office but first announced in April, will “develop strategies to encourage their peers to actively engage in maintaining a safe school environment and will be advocates for students’ overall well-being.” DeWine’s office stated.
No deadline was given for the release of the strategies.
Follow OCJ Reporter Susan Tebben on Twitter.
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