From: Mary Jo Klinkner
Last week, WAPS became the second district in Minnesota to remove police officers from schools in the wake of a movement to defund police and address systematic white supremacy. However, this moment has longer organizing roots than a School Board vote; this struggle has been led by Black mothers in our community for years. While this change is critical, the fact that justice was denied for years stings and remains unresolved.
In the local coverage of this vote, social media commenters asked: “What about safety in schools?” “Why weren’t parents consulted?” “Was there a problem with police in schools?” These questions mask more than benign white ignorance; they tell a story about the silencing of Black voices and the erasure of Black experience and labor.
In 2016, School Board members and the public heard testimony from Black student activists in FORTITUDE with comments such as: “People wear confederate flags meaning they don’t like [people of color].” “It’s the officer here, he isn’t here to protect us, but target us. He shouldn’t be here … it isn’t a prison. That’s how he handles it … no, I don’t feel safe here.”...“I’d change how teachers discipline kids, especially if they’re a different race …”...“to have a police officer in the school, it’s like, what would be the cause to tase or shoot a student in school, you don’t need that ….” Only 33 percent of Black students graduated from WAPS in 2015. On June 13, 2020, these statements were read publicly again and juxtaposed with contemporary stories of racial inequities in Winona Senior High, reverberating the structural continuities between the past and the present. These experiences from 2016, which had been so easily ignored by all decision makers and their white constituents, were evidence of a problem and concerns of safety.
As Vineka Ross, a mother, recently stated: “I’m appalled that it’s taken this long for the WAPS, with it being such a small town, that it hasn’t taken action swiftly. It’s taken four years ... I feel that everybody deserves a good education without worrying about the police trying to harass you for whatever reason, they are there to learn. You are not in a prison. You are not in a prison; you are in school … What is the point of them being there? … I only think the police are there because there are Black kids that go there.” Parents were asked. Safety was denied. Parents of color have spoken, and until recently, many white parents, WAPS staff, and administrators have willfully ignored them.
As reproductive justice activists and abolitionists alike have long demanded, children and families deserve healthy communities without racist violence and the systems that produce inequity, and the Winona Racial Injustice Coalition is making proposals that will move WAPS in that direction. Demands of the Winona Racial Injustice Coalition – to dissolve the relationship with the Winona Police Department and to fund a Black liaison – are investments in our community. Police are out of our schools, a demand realized in the struggle for justice as outlined by the Movement for Black Lives. The second demand remains unresolved, although Kiesha Morgan has been doing this work for free for three years. As many Winonans have learned recently, Morgan is a mother and the founder of Our Voices, an organization described by the Winona Daily News as “a family, safe haven for African American students at Winona Senior High School.” Morgan was also involved in FORTITUDE for eight years and documented student testimonies and supported parents for years leading to this moment. Her years of unpaid labor to document the criminalization of Black children, advocate for their liberation, and provide a refuge to Black families IS the work of a Black liaison. It is also the work of justice and safety. The School Board’s decision not to fund a Black liaison, despite this work being done for years, is yet another form of racist exploitation of Black women’s labor and truths. Until these are respected and supported, injustice prevails. Recently, Superintendent Freiheit wrote an open letter asking that WAPS be held accountable for change in our schools. Winonans, the majority of you have remained silent: Are you ready to be held accountable too?