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DULUTH — When students returned to Denfeld High School last fall after more than a year learning outside its halls, the number of disruptive fights and dangerous assaults was unlike anything principal Tom Tusken had seen in nearly three decades working in schools.

"We faced some extraordinary circumstances this fall," he said, "the likes of which we haven't seen, ever."

It led to more than 30 police citations in September and October, most of them to Black students. And it reflected a trend in Duluth schools of Black students being disproportionately ticketed by police.

From fall 2016 through March 2022, Black students, who typically make up less than 5% of the student population — received one-third of police tickets, according to a review of Duluth police data. White students, at roughly 80% of enrollment, received just over one-third of the tickets.

Similar to schools across the nation, discipline handed out by Duluth school administrators has also long been racially disparate. In 2018, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights said it found racial discipline disparities in more than 40 school districts and charter schools, and Duluth was among them, with a high rate of suspensions for Black students.

A Duluth watchdog group sees the disparities between Black and white students as too extreme to accept that Black students are more aggressive or doing more harm.

"We need both the Police Department and the school district to explain why the racial disparity is there," said Jamey Sharp, a member of the Law Enforcement Accountability Network.

Until that's done, he said, the takeaway appears to be either policy or individual-based discrimination.

A new police contract

As the school district grappled with its own discipline disparities, it underwent a community-requested two-year examination of its school policing program, begun in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. It culminates this month with a vote on a new police contract for the four officers employed in schools, and it's intended to restore community trust and address racial disparities in school law enforcement.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that things will improve," said assistant superintendent Anthony Bonds.

New pieces to the proposed contract include increased relationship-building with students, participation in the implicit bias and trauma-informed training that school staff now take, and regular review of ticketing data with school leaders.

Bonds, who joined the district in 2020, believes in judicious use of police ticketing in school, limited to things like serious assaults and possession of weapons and drugs.

In reviewing the data, school officials and police can ask the question: "Do we really have to give these citations for these things?" Bonds said.

Sgt. Chad Guenther, who was stationed at Denfeld last school year but has also worked on the department's mental health unit, said relationship-building was very much a part of his work, with kids who received tickets seeking him out for guidance as the year went on.

"A lot of the kids who misbehaved trust me," he said.

Guenther, who was working as a school police officer for the first time since 2014, said he'd typically consider circumstances in deciding whether to ticket a student, but because of the sheer number of fights in the fall, everyone involved received a citation. Conflict that brewed during the pandemic had spilled over at school, when some students saw each other again for the first time in months, and video of violent brawls inside classrooms spread through social media.

"If our school year hadn't been what it was, obviously there would have been times to look at the totality of the circumstances — sometimes the last thing a kid needs is a ticket," Guenther said.

But kids weren't used to dealing with each other, school leaders say, and they had to gain control of the chaos.

The Duluth Police Department recently underwent a study of its policing that showed racial disparities in arrests, use of force and more, but revealed little on why.

Just-retired Police Chief Mike Tusken, whose brother leads Denfeld High School, said enforcement is part of the school policing job "we try to avoid."

"We understand we are taking actions against students where it will be another barrier or hurdle for them to overcome," Mike Tusken said. "It's not a lack of discretion or a rush to put people into a system."

Officers often make judgment calls in issuing tickets for incidents where they have discretion, choosing to counsel a student instead, Guenther said.

Sometimes whether a student receives a ticket is influenced by victims' wishes or by restoring a sense of safety to provide a better learning environment, Mike Tusken said, noting police heard from students and staff traumatized by the number of fights at Denfeld last year.

More than half of the citations given to students since 2016 were related to drugs, fighting or assaults, at about 20% each.

The Duluth NAACP doesn't see a daily role for police officers inside schools. It says the money the school district pays toward their salaries should be funneled instead toward things like counselors and trauma training for teachers.

Tickets cause a ripple effect of problems for families, from the cost to pay them to missed work and school to go to court, said Ebony Hilman, co-chair of the Duluth NAACP's Education Committee.

"In my opinion, (school police) are doing work that counselors should be doing, that principals should be doing," she said. "Giving our young people records at an early age sets them up for the school-to-prison pipeline."

Police said many kids who receive a ticket are referred to the county's juvenile diversion program, used to keep them from entering the justice system. If they complete the program their ticket is dismissed. It comes with a $25 fee, but assistance is offered to those who can't pay, said Jerry Koneczny of the St. Louis County Attorney's Office. Of the 73 kids referred countywide to the program from January through June 2022, 12% were black.

Mike Tusken said the number of repeat offenses in Duluth schools is low, signaling that students are learning. He said his department trains on impartial policing and addressing behaviors in similar ways is part of eliminating bias.

"It is terrible we have disparities in our systems, and we have to keep challenging (ourselves) to do better," Mike Tusken said. "We also have a job to try and maintain safe schools."