Behavioral referrals and drug activity have been decreasing at Cloquet High School over the last few years, a trend officials attribute to the presence of a school resource officer on campus and the restorative justice practices they've implemented.
Cloquet High School Principal Steve Battaglia said he believes students behave better because Officer Larry Sherk worked hard to build relationships with them. In addition to his school resource officer duties, Sherk is an assistant track coach and helps at football games.
“It takes a special person to be an SRO, and he is eager to be here," Battaglia said. "He really embraced the school culture.”
New school resource officer
Sherk, 31, began his law enforcement career in 2014 in North Dakota, where he first took on the role of school resource officer. He moved to the Cloquet Police Department in 2017 and into the school resource officer post after Officer Erik Blesener retired in 2019.
Sherk emphasized that disciplining students is not part of his role. He makes himself available to students in his office, while walking the hallways and the lunchroom.
One of the issues he deals with most often in the middle and high schools is harassment and bullying. Much of it takes place on social media. He said he was surprised by how many platforms are available to students.
“It’s not easy being a teen,” Sherk said.
One of the main roles of the school resource officer is to improve safety at the school by building relationships with the approximately 1,800 students and staff, Battaglia said. He said he has not heard of any complaints about the school resource officer program since it restarted in 2017.
The program is a partnership between the school and the city. Therefore, Cloquet Schools paid about $64,094 of Sherk's salary and benefits during the 2019-20 school year, said Candace Nelis, school district business manager. The city paid the remaining $21,400, said Cloquet Finance Director Nancy Klassen.
Behavior problems decline
Overall behavior referrals to the office dropped from 935 in 2015-16 to 518 in 2018-19, Battaglia said. Out-of-school suspensions are also down from 59 to 32 in the same time frame.
Battaglia said he attributes the drop to the district's restorative practice sessions, as well as the presence of an officer. He could not provide the numbers from 2019-20 because he said they have not been completed.
"I think this also points to the fact that having an SRO in the building doesn't automatically increase disciplinary/law enforcement citations," Battaglia said.
Before school closed in the spring, there were 75 restorative sessions and 33 apology conferences, Battaglia said.
Battaglia said the schools implemented restorative practices several years ago and they have had a positive impact on students. Each student involved in an incident gets to talk about what happened, their feelings about it, and more.
“The restorative sessions get more to the root of the problem,” Battaglia said.
At the end of the session, Sherk said the students involved come up with a solution. The restorative practices coordinator meets with the students later to see if anything has changed. Sherk said he participated in 12 sessions in the seven months he was on campus.
Very rarely do officials see the situation continue to be a problem after the restorative sessions are completed, he said.
"We see a much better chance of putting issues to rest via restorative practices than traditional suspension or detention," Battaglia said.
Rethinking police in schools
However, some communities are reexamining the place officers have in their schools. After George Floyd died in police custody May 25, there has been a call to remove officers from schools across the United States, including in Duluth and Cloquet. Some residents advocated that Duluth Public Schools remove school resource officers, but the Duluth School Board in July passed a resolution of support for officers, the Duluth News Tribune reported. The resolution allows school district officials to negotiate a new contract with the city for school resource officers, which the board would vote whether to approve.
In Cloquet, Torina Stark, the parent of a recent Cloquet High School graduate, wrote a letter to the school board saying she does not believe there should be an officer in the school.
“On June 18, the American Federation of Teachers officially called for the separation of school safety and policing as part of their commitment to combat racism against black students,” Stark said in her letter. “We are well aware that this also happens to other students of color, particularly Native American students.”
She went on to say there are studies that prove officers in schools disproportionately discipline students of color, as well as students with disabilities.
"This is a great opportunity right now to invest in a brighter future for our students," Stark said in her letter.
Stark's letter is the only communication district officials said they have received about removing a resource officer from Cloquet Schools.