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Anchorage School District superintendent criticized over email addressing nationwide scrutiny of police in schools

Anchorage School District superintendent Deena Bishop. (Marc Lester / ADN archive)

Anchorage residents concerned about the presence of police in schools are criticizing the school district superintendent for a district-wide email she sent last week about issues of policing, race and racism in schools.

In the midst of a national movement to confront racism sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, some school districts are eliminating or reevaluating programs that embed police in schools. It’s what caused Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop to address the district’s school resource officer program and send the message, she said.

But some residents are raising concerns about the wording and ideas in Bishop’s email, including one Anchorage Assembly member who called it “tone deaf.”

In response to public criticisms during a virtual school board meeting Tuesday, Bishop said, “There aren’t any excuses if I didn’t communicate well, and it didn’t sit well with folks, but it just demonstrates that probably because of the emotions that it’s something that we should be addressing in ASD and I’m willing to do so.”

In the district-wide message, Bishop said she planned to keep officers in schools and to involve students in the Anchorage Community Police Relations Task Force, a local committee. The district’s Office of Equity and the Secondary Education Department will help get high school students involved, she said.

Bishop said that after seeing the national trend, she sought out more information on the school resource officer program, including if any complaints had been lodged. She said she had a meeting with Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll.

Three people, including Celeste Hodge Growden, president of the Alaska Black Caucus, called in to testify at the school board meeting Tuesday night. Another person submitted written testimony. All opposed the presence of police in Anchorage schools and expressed concern with Bishop’s approach.

“To suggest that SROs should continue in the schools after a conversation with the police chief, not families of color within our community or the students, is a top-down approach that continues the disenfranchisement of our students,” Hodge Growden said.

“We can no longer wait for equity and equality in education,” Hodge Growden said. “We must demand the knee be removed from our neck — yes, even in education.”

Hodge Growden said she served on the task force for many years and strongly disagrees with giving school-aged children that responsibility, saying they could be exposed to evidence from cases of police violence.

Hodge Growden and Anchorage Assembly member Meg Zaletel also objected to one sentence in particular in Bishop’s email:

“It has been evident for some time that our outcomes are not equitable for our black and brown students. Collectively they do not achieve what our white students achieve,” Bishop wrote.

Both Hodge Growden and Zaletel said that language places blame on students of color.

“I felt like that email was tone deaf at best to the facts and the history of the school district, if not blatantly just disregarding it,” Zaletel said in an interview.

Bishop said Tuesday she was trying to highlight the evidence of systemic racism in Anchorage schools — shown in its own data — as reason to evaluate how the district is teaching and supporting its students of color.

“We will continue to look in the mirror as opposed to looking out the window and seeing what’s wrong with others," Bishop said Tuesday. “We look at our systemic, institutionalized process and policy first, and that’s what we’re charged to do."

Amelia Starks, a black woman who raised seven children in the Anchorage School District and now has grandchildren in the city’s schools, said in testimony during Tuesday’s meeting that once her children reached high school, she had to teach them that society would treat them differently because of their skin color. She also objected to the presence of school resource officers in Anchorage schools.

“I’m surely concerned about older children having witnessed the abuse of power by police all over our country, killing of our people and that it will have an emotional toll on them,” Starks said. “They may no longer feel safe, and may even ask questions: ‘Are you here to kill me?’ Because social media has taught them more often than not, some police do not protect.”

Bishop said in her district-wide email that Anchorage’s school resource officer program does not focus on policing but on safety, mentoring teaching and offering students support.

“Anchorage SROs are truly that, a resource. They do not do locker checks or engage in school discipline; our principals do that work as needed," she wrote. “SROs are necessary for the simple fact that our schools are part of the greater community. And, as with any community, there are times when police are needed.”

Some, like Zaletel, worry that the presence of police is a disciplinary tool in schools, and point to district data showing much higher rates of disciplinary action like suspensions taken against students of color than their white counterparts.

School board member Starr Marsett, who has for years advocated for better equity in school discipline, said Tuesday in an interview that she wants to see more data on the police program to develop a better understanding of its effects on students of color before making any decisions.

Marsett said she doesn’t want to react to national trends or statistics by pulling a program that could be beneficial.

“With all the tension between police and the community, even here in Anchorage, I think it’s a great opportunity for our students develop relationships with our police force,” Marsett said.

Both students and schools need more resources and support, Zaletel said, but she doesn’t believe police are necessarily the best way to provide that.

“Why aren’t we funding school nurses or public health nurses and counseling or social workers?” Zaletel said.

Any evaluation of the school resource officer program will continue into the fall, Bishop wrote in response to an emailed question Tuesday.

“My goal was to start with a plan that included the people in the schools who are closest to the issue, the students, staff, and SROs themselves,” Bishop said in the email.

School board president Elisa Vakalis said that a community discussion about police in Anchorage schools will be held by the school board July 21.

She said that beforehand, the school board and administration will gather data and seek answers to questions that people have asked about the school resource officer program.

“We’re going to take the time to get that information with the administration so that we can have the meaningful discussions that need to happen,” Vakalis said. “I hope that our community will join us wholeheartedly in that conversation.”

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