Learning from Leaders in Milwaukee About School Safety

LP members and partners joined an immersive learning experience focused on school safety in Milwaukee

Localities across the country are building real school safety by investing in everything students need to thrive and working to dismantle carceral elements in schools.

Take Milwaukee for example. Over the past decade, youth organizers and local elected officials have worked together to create an affirmative vision of school safety rooted in restorative justice and laid the groundwork for what would help them become one of the largest school districts in the country to remove police from schools.

Milwaukee Public Schools is the largest and most diverse public school district in Wisconsin. Years of increasingly harsh law enforcement and punitive school policies have resulted in growing concern within affected communities, particularly among Black and Brown students who have been disproportionately impacted by the presence of police officers in and around their schools. In 2016, Milwaukee Public Schools began responding to these concerns and ended the practice of permanently assigning school resource officers (SROs) to schools. Following the organizing and advocacy of Black and Brown young people, in 2019, the school board reduced the contracts the district established with the Milwaukee Police Department and voted down a proposed $600,000 contract for upgraded X-ray metal detectors. Instead the school district was able to invest in six new mental health positions to focus on trauma-informed care. The murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department inspired a national moment of reckoning in the summer of 2020. Youth organizers in Milwaukee took part in this moment by building on their years of advocacy with a newfound level of community support, demanding that the school board fully end the practice of policing in schools. In 2020, the board unanimously voted to end all police contracts and limited surveillance equipment purchases to the extent permitted under state law.

This month, Local Progress and the Local Progress Impact Lab brought two dozen local elected officials, community partners, and government staffers together in Milwaukee to learn about the work done to create real safety in schools. Participants included leaders from Chicago (IL), Culver City (CA), Durham (NC), Gwinnett County (GA), La Crosse County (WI), Madison (WI), Minneapolis (MN), New York City, Phoenix (AZ), Racine (WI), and Rochester (NY). The goal of the two and a half day site visit was to inspire members to take action back home and empower them with new resources for how to create real safety in their schools. This site visit was anchored by both the Public Safety Steering Committee and the School Board Steering Committee – bodies at LP that help our organization determine what we should prioritize. Living into our theory of change around collaborative governance, LP members were able to bring a plus-one with them to help bring this work back home – including restorative practice experts and community leaders. The group met with students, teachers, district staff, and community organizers to identify lessons learned and best practices that can inform their own work.

Local Progress School Board Steering Committee Member and Milwaukee School Board Vice President Jilly Gokalgandhi and LP Board Member and Milwaukee County Chairwoman Marcelia Nicholson created a powerful agenda to share how Milwaukee’s rich history of youth organizing along with strong elected leadership in the city achieved school safety reform and showcased the importance of collaborative governance.

For many students in our communities they encounter what has become known as the school-to-prison-and-deportation pipeline or what some others call a nexus, given how intertwined criminalization is in our schools today. Students often have to pass through metal detectors, walk past armed police or guards, are under the watchful eye of surveillance technology and are punished for just being kids leading to suspensions and expulsions. This is especially true for students who are Black and Brown, immigrant, queer, disabled and neurodivergent.

In addition to this outsized investment in criminalization, we also see a targeted divestment in the things we know keep students safe: trauma-informed care and counseling, mental health services, arts and afterschool programming, restorative practice programs, and wraparound services. The site visit helped illustrate and uplift those affirmative programs that keep students safe without involving the criminal-legal system.

On the first day, the group visited Audubon High School, a local model for how restorative practices can create a school community led by young people. As participants heard directly from students who participated in the school’s program one thing became clear: building true relationships is foundational for restorative practices – like repairing harm circles – and creating trauma sensitive schools.

“It really takes every person in the building. But the students are the leaders, the stars. Students hear from adults all day. What they really need is peer perspective.”

Later that day, we also met with local partners Leaders Igniting Transformation who shared how student organizers leveraged their power to advance a youth-powered agenda, including removing police from Milwaukee public schools.

On the second day, we focused on program implementation and heard directly from the superintendent about challenges, opportunities, and navigating community, district, and local and state governing tensions. The group talked about the resource challenges that plague our public education system, often manufactured by corporate-back state legislatures that are profiting from the privatization of education. Unfortunately, similar to other districts across the country, next year Milwaukee will be required to bring as many as 25 SROs back to local public schools given a recent Republican-led state shared revenue budget deal. While we celebrate the collective efforts of youth organizers and dedicated local elected leaders to create the affirmative school safety we know keeps students safe, there is much more work to do to ensure recent gains are sustained amidst growing national backlash.

Similar to our trip to Portland last year, this site visit is part of our broader public safety work and will help inform the development of policy resources on school safety.