The Jefferson County Board of Education was supposed to meet Tuesday to approve two new COVID-19 testing policies. Instead, heated public comment over school-based policing turned into a shouting match and forced the board to adjourn early for the first time in recent memory.
Adding school resource officers, or SROs, was not on the agenda. But the meeting was the board’s first since Louisville Metro Police Chief Erika Shields called for Jefferson County Public Schools to bring back SROs following the killing of 16-year-old Tyree Smith at a JCPS bus stop. Community members on both sides of the issue came prepared to speak.
“I see that the JCPS board protects themselves with multiple police officers at these board meetings,” pro-SRO speaker Eileen Serke told the board during public comment. JCPS has several security and police officers on hand for board meetings.
“Why do you deserve one police officer for each board member here, while our schools with hundreds of children do not even get one police officer to protect them?”
Anti-SRO attendees, who were mostly Black, grumbled and peppered the all-white pro-SRO speakers with shouts.
“You don’t know what’s right for our kids!” one Black woman shouted.
The argument grew to a boiling point, with protesters on all sides yelling.
“We demand order!” one white pro-SRO commenter yelled at the anti-SRO crowd as they continued to interject.
Anti-SRO protesters began arguing with the security officers, and after several minutes, police told everyone to leave the school building. Anti-SRO protester Aprile Hearn said the argument with officers began after police initially refused to remove a white woman who Hearn said verbally threatened a Black man in their group.
“I asked a Black officer if he could remove her because she was threatening us,” Hearn said. “The officer told me, ‘If you feel threatened, you should get up and leave.’”
Most anti-SRO speakers did not have a chance to voice their concerns during the meeting, but after the meeting adjourned, they used a bullhorn to share their perspective in the schoolyard outside. Many figures in Louisville’s racial justice protests were there, including Carmen Jones, Amber Brown, Chris Wells and Tyra Walker, co-chair of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.
Atherton High School student Josiah Finely, who is Black and lives in Louisville’s West End, said he can “almost can understand where Chief Shields is coming from, but emphasis on ‘almost.’”
“She is not a student, she is not a student of color, and she cannot speak for us. … By adding SROs, you are painting a target on the back of students of color,” Finley said.
“Instead of bringing in these professionals to deal with conflicts among kids in our schools, maybe we should be asking more questions: What are schools doing now to prevent these conflicts? What relationships are being made with students with behavior issues?” Emily Pabón, a biracial Atherton High School student, said.
The board decided to adjourn the meeting shortly after protesters gathered outside the school.
District 2 Board member Chris Kolb blamed the chaos on city leaders’ push for SROs.
“The person primarily responsible for the chaos at the [JCPS] board meeting tonight is LMPD Chief Erika Shields, though councilpersons David James, Anthony Piagentini and Marcus Winkler are also to blame,” Kolb told WFPL by text.
He said they have used Tyree’s Smith’s death to push for police in schools, “which is a distraction from their own responsibility for public safety and a distraction from steps needed to actually reduce violence.”
District spokeswoman Renee Murphy said the board may have to call a special meeting in order to address the items that were on Tuesday night’s agenda.
The last time the JCPS board meeting was significantly disrupted was when right-wing protesters derailed a June meeting over fears that critical race theory might be taught in schools. Board Chair Diane Porter called for a five minute recess at that meeting, but did not adjourn it completely until after they had addressed the evening’s agenda items.