Education

The shooting death of 16-year-old Tyree Smith at his school bus stop has reignited a conversation about policing in Jefferson County Public Schools. In the week since Smith’s death, Louisville Metro Police Chief Erika Shields has been pushing to bring back school resource officers, or SROs. But the community is not all on the same page. Many have concerns about how Black and brown students are policed by SROs.

Shields Banging The Drum

Five and a half hours after Tyree Smith was gunned down at his bus stop, Louisville Metro Police Chief Erika Shields took the podium at Metro Hall and said if the city wants to address the rise in gun violence among teens, JCPS has to create its own internal police force.

“JCPS has to have its own police department,” she said. “We can’t sit here with our thumbs up our ass, do nothing different, and think we won’t be back at this podium. So I can promise you I will be banging that drum loudly.”

In the days since, Shields has repeated calls for bringing back school resource officers on LMPD’s Twitter account and in an appearance on 840 WHAS-AM.

It’s been about two years since JCPS schools had a regular police presence. The district used to contract with LMPD and other local police departments for 28 school resource officers, spread across 155 school buildings. But in 2019, LMPD pulled its 17 officers from JCPS schools due to budget cuts and staffing shortages. Then, in a split vote, the Jefferson County Board of Education voted not to renew contracts with 11 other SROs from police departments in Jeffersontown, Shively and the sheriff’s office. Board members had concerns about racially biased policing.

Now, Shields says, law enforcement is lacking “critical intelligence” about gang activity and potential violence among students.

“We don’t know what’s transpiring in the schools. We don’t know what fights are kicking off. We don’t know where to expect the next blow up,” Shields said on WHAS-AM Radio Monday morning. “When you have school resource officers, not only can they intercede in this capacity, but they can also mentor the kids.”

Police haven’t released any information about the motive behind the bus stop shooting or whether it was related to a gang dispute. Shields said she doesn’t believe Tyree Smith was involved in criminal activity and has called his killing a “random act of violence.”

Still, she’s using the moment to highlight what she says is a gang problem in JCPS. She argues SROs could gain intel that would help reduce violence on the street. Like many other cities, Louisville is seeing record levels of gun violence, which officials and experts attribute both to gang activity and arguments on social media that get out of hand.

“We are dealing with a very difficult gang issue in this city. Many of our gang members go to these schools,” she said.

How do students feel?

Many students disagree with Shields’ call for more police in schools. 

“I’ve talked to my friends about it, and they were like, ‘That would make me super uncomfortable,’” Barrett Middle School eighth grader Jayus Rasheed told WFPL News. “People have trauma from the police,” she said, noting Louisville’s history of racially biased policing practices.

Her concerns echo those seen in a large body of research: SROs make Black students like Rasheed and other students of color feel less safe in school. That’s one of the reasons JCPS board members ended SRO contracts two years ago.

And just like adults of color are disproportionately policed on the streets, research shows kids of color are disproportionately policed in school buildings. Both the Louisville Urban League and the ACLU of Kentucky have condemned Chief Shield’s call for police in schools.

“There is no clear evidence to suggest that police in schools is a good solution to anything,” reads a Tuesday statement from the Louisville Urban League. “What little data exists at all on school resources officers (SROs) is conflicting at best, but certainly, there are mountains of evidence on the harms of over-policing, particularly on Black and brown communities.”

W.E.B. DuBois school ninth grader Joseph Paige is Black and has been active in protests for social justice and against police violence. He told WFPL News he feels uncomfortable around law enforcement. He remembers freezing up earlier this year, when he saw an officer outside his classroom door in the hall.

“I couldn’t pay attention to what was going on in class, because it was like, he’s there,” Paige said. “And it was like, all the stuff that I’m doing and all of the social injustice that I fight against, it’s like, what’s the point of it, if they’re just gonna have another police officer—who can potentially kill me—right outside the doors of our classroom?”

Paige cringes at the idea of officers collecting intelligence on students. He worries he’ll be stereotyped because of his race or his friends, or the neighborhood he grew up in.

His classmate Demontez Shepard told WFPL he worries collecting intel on students in school could exacerbate tensions and put students at risk.

“Snitching is like—it’s a really bad thing,” he said. “It’s like, whether you say their name, if you mention anything about anybody, that could end up getting you killed.”

If Shepard were to feel unsafe, he said he’d be most comfortable going to his school counselor, not a police officer.

“He connects and really relates to us on a personal level. It’s not just like a textbook response,” he said.

Tyree Smith's 9th grade year book photo. He was killed in his junior year while waiting for his school bus.Courtesy of Eastern High School

Tyree Smith’s 9th grade year book photo. He was killed in his junior year while waiting for his school bus.

Some students are in favor of SROs. Pleasure Ridge Park High School junior Austyn Raymer started a petition in August to bring back SROs after a fellow student brandished a pellet gun during a fight at her school, and has spoken out at two Jefferson County Board of Education meetings.

“With the events that have happened in the very short ten months that I have been in the school building since my freshman year, I don’t always feel like I’m as safe in these buildings as they tell us we should be,” Raymer told the board in August.

Meanwhile, JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio is pushing back on Chief Shield’s characterization of the problem, saying gun violence is a community-wide issue. 

“This is not a JCPS problem,” Pollio said in a video message to families at the end of last week. 

He also worries that if JCPS did create its own force, it would be hard to find enough trained officers. Many existing police departments are already facing serious personnel shortages. 

“I mean—we have 155 schools,” Pollio said. “But I think it is something we definitely are going to be discussing with our board of education and see where they want to go with it.”

Pollio had harsher words Tuesday.

“I’m very disappointed that one of our children was shot and killed on a street corner in Louisville waiting for the school bus, and the argument we are having right now is about school resource officers,” he said at a press conference about school report cards.

The board started conversations about creating its own police force in 2019, but Pollio said talks stalled out when the pandemic hit.

The board’s next meeting is October 5.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.