PROVIDENCE – Black students accounted for 30 percent of all arrests in Providence schools between the 2016-17 school year and the 2019-20 school year, even though they made up just 16 percent of the student population, according to a report released Wednesday by the Center for Youth and Community Leadership in Education (CYCLE) at Roger Williams University.
The advocacy organization analyzed 237 arrests over three school years, and found that Black students were “disproportionately represented,” compared to Latino and white students. The report shows that 60 percent of the arrests involved Latino students, while they make up 65 percent of the student population. While white students account for 9 percent of the population, they made up 6 percent of the arrests.
The report takes a strong position on a hot-button issue in Rhode Island’s capital city, recommending that Providence remove the eight police officers that are assigned to the district’s middle and high schools – known as resource officers – and instead invest in counselors or other support staff.
Keith Catone, the executive director of CYCLE, said the report isn’t meant to criticize individual resource officers, some of whom are popular with students and educators, but he suggested that the presence of a law enforcement officer with a gun on school grounds intimidates are large portion of the student population.
“If they’re there to do other things, they don’t need to be cops,” Catone told the Globe on Wednesday.
The Providence Police Department has provided resource officers to city schools for more than 20 years, and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare said the decision to retain or remove the officers from schools is ultimately up to the Providence Public School Department. In recent years, most of the city’s high schools have had been assigned a resource officer.
The need for resource officers in schools has been an on-again, off-again conversation in political and education circles in recent years, with groups like the Providence Student Union and some members of the City Council arguing that the officers should be removed. But Catone acknowledged that it will likely take the support of teachers and administrators in order achieve CYCLE’s goal.
Superintendent Harrison Peters, whose first year on the job has been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, said the district is continuing to explore its options on resource officers.
“I have been engaged in a number of discussions on the topic of school resource officers, and I continue to hear compelling arguments on both sides,” Peters said. “While no decision about the future of SROs in our schools has been made at this time, the district is committed to an in-depth and inclusive exploration of the issue.”
Nearly 60 percent of the arrests over three years resulted in charges of disorderly conduct or simple assault, while other charges included possession of a firearm or other weapons, resisting arrest, vandalism, felony assault, or trespassing.
Most of the arrests — 33 percent — occurred at Mount Pleasant High School, while rates at Central High School (12 percent) and Alvarez High School (9 percent) were also high. The report notes that students between the ages of 11 and 13 account for 19 percent of the arrests, with 8 percent of arrests occurring at Roger Williams Middle School.
Catone, who holds degrees from Brown University and Harvard and has been deeply involved with Providence schools for more than a decade, said the district has an institutional problem that is “specific to anti-Blackness,” but he noted that Latino males were also arrested by disproportionate margin.
Black male and female students were overrepresented in the arrest data compared to the overall student population, and Latino males accounted for 44 percent of arrests while making up 36 percent of all students in the district.
“Those numbers don’t indict the SROs,” Catone said. “It’s the whole the system. It’s all the adults.”
The report was funded by The Communities for Just Schools Fund, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that provides grants to community-led organizations seeking to ensure positive and supportive school climates.
CYCLE partnered with the Providence Alliance for Student Safety on the report, collecting arrest and absenteeism demographic data, and interviewing 37 individuals connected to the district. It also collected survey responses from 71 students.
The organization acknowledged that the number of contacts in the report was extremely low in a district that has 24,000 students and more than 2,000 employees. Of the few students surveyed, most said they did not feel comfortable with resource officers having guns in school, though nearly half did not object to having a resource officer there.
Catone said the organization will present its findings to district leaders, but to achieve its goal, it will likely need to convince state leaders as well.
The state Department of Education took control of Providence schools last year, and is expected to maintain its power for at least another five years. The state takeover stemmed largely from poor academic performance, but a report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University released in the summer of 2019 also suggested that some students and teachers don’t feel safe in the schools.
“There’s an opportunity to open that discussion with the state, to figure out what else can be done,” Catone said.