Here’s What Happened When Des Moines Removed Cops From Their Schools

Des Moines Removed Cops From Their Schools plaque with a badge and apple

After a campaign organized and spearheaded by Des Moines high school students that led to intense community pressure and broad support for change, the Des Moines, Iowa, School Board voted to remove police from public schools in 2021. 

School resource officers (SROs) had been embedded in Des Moines schools since 1999. Keep reading to find out what happened when they no longer patrolled the halls. 

The Impact of Police in Des Moines Schools

Endí Montalvo-Martinez and Lyric Sellers led the movement to remove SROs in Des Moines. In talking to their friends and classmates, they learned that many of them, especially Black and Brown students, were intimidated and felt targeted by police officers in the school. Then they contacted the Iowa Department of Human Rights and found hard data that backed up students’ claims.  

Research showed that SROs in Des Moines schools (like SROs in schools across the country) had indeed—routinely—targeted, punished, and criminalized students of color.

  • Black students were six times more likely to interact with police officers in Des Moines schools than white students.
  • Between 2015 and 2019, the number of in-school arrests more than doubled, from 273 per year to 590. 41% percent of those arrests took place in middle and elementary school!
  • Black students accounted for 53% of all arrests, despite making up 20% of the student body.

Counselors, Not Cops

The school board took the $750,000 it was spending every year on policing and instead hired 20 new trained staff that function a lot like counselors in a fairly new field called “restorative practices.”

Restorative practices is an emerging model for helping students build community and overcome conflicts through an in-school mediator, without involving the police.

That last part is key: “without involving the police.” Counselors work within the school and with students to create a better learning environment, to foster growth and understanding, and to prevent and preempt problems from happening in the first place. SROs, like the majority of police officers, show up only once an incident has occurred. (And, far too often, when police show up, they make things even worse).

Restorative Practices

Des Moines schools are now using a three-tiered restorative practices system. 

  1. Check and connect: Focuses on the importance of staff building trust with students every day.
  2. Identify the problem: Brings students together to resolve conflicts and restore community connections.
  3. Diversion programs: Helps students to reintegrate into class after a serious incident occurs. 

The third tier is used as an alternative to suspension, expulsion, or involving police.

Students are given a space where teachers can visit them as they do scheduled schoolwork. Restorative practices facilitators visit once a week to help them work through their behavior and make progress toward rejoining the school community.

Promising Results

Dismantling a system that’s been in place since 1999 isn’t easy, but so far Des Moines’ new approach to prioritizing the health and safety of its students seems to be working!

  • Student arrests districtwide fell to 98 in 2021-22
  • At Roosevelt High School, students’ sense of physical safety increased from 36% in 2019 to 54% in 2022 
  • Roosevelt students reporting improved relationships with peers rose to 50% from 33% in 2019
  • All teachers and staff across the entire district are now trained in restorative practices
  • All schools have a dedicated restorative practice faculty member

Hopeful Progress

What Des Moines is doing should serve as a model for other school districts across the country. When police no longer patrol the hallways, students feel safer, learn better, and avoid the school to prison pipeline that feeds our system of mass incarceration. 

The school-to-prison pipeline is a term used to describe the way racist policing in schools winds up trapping so many students of color in the criminal legal system.

  • Black and Brown students are more than twice as likely as white students, even when they’ve engaged in the same behavior, to be referred to or arrested by police at school.
  • Even beyond any contact with police, Black students are also punished more often, and more harshly, than white students, for the same exact behavior.
  • Contact with police makes it more likely that young people will be trapped in the criminal legal system for the rest of their lives.

Work with us to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline and make sure every school in the US is police-free.