This story was originally published on July 11, 2020.
Julia Allwein, an OSU student and a graduate of Columbus City Schools, was laser focused on Minneapolis in the days after the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. The University of Minnesota had cut ties to the Minneapolis Police Department three days after Floyd’s death in response to student demands. Only four days after that the students of the Minneapolis Public Schools had succeeded in convincing their school board to oust the Minneapolis Police Department School Resource Officers from their district.
“I thought if they can do it, then Columbus City Schools can too”, Allwein said.
The Ohio State University has its own police department but has a mutual aid agreement with the City of Columbus Division of Police for backup and specialized services. CPD also had a role in policing the Columbus City School District by providing School Resource Officers. Student leaders from OSU, including alumnae of CCS, have called for those contractual relationships to be terminated.
By May 28, while CPD was controlling peaceful protestors with tear gas and wooden bullets in Columbus, OSU student activists, who had met through the Morrill Scholarship Program (MSP), were planning a response to the police brutality and overpolicing by CPD. On May 30, OSU President Michael Drake asked the community to reflect on how they could make things different. Roaya Higazi, an MSP student and the Undergraduate Student Body President, began drafting a demand letter with Stephen Post, President of the Council of Graduate Students and Jordan Vajda, President of the Inter-Professional Council.
“We specifically called upon our university to hold CPD accountable for their actions and the ways that they have inflicted harm on our community,” Higazi said. The signed letter was delivered to Drake and other university administrators on June 1. They also sent out a call to all campus activists to boost the message.
When Jayson Velazquez, a classmate of Higazi, received the call, he said he remembered thinking, “Yes, ma’am!” He went right to work, writing deans and professors to get their public support. The next afternoon, he found himself standing on the statue in front of Thompson Library shouting the demands through a bullhorn loaned to him by some high school students he had met while protesting at the Ohio Statehouse just hours before.
“When we bring the students on campus, we foster a commitment to social justice and give them a toolkit that they can use to be effective change agents both on campus and when they leave,” Robert Decatur, MSP Director said.
Kanyinsola Oye, a friend of Allwein’s since their days at Columbus Alternative High School, had called her with an idea to seize the momentum to get rid of SROs at CCS. Oye, a political science major at Howard University, and Allwein reached out to other CCS alumnae to draft a plan. They created an online petition, circulated it until Friday, June 5 when they delivered it to the Columbus School Board with a couple thousand signatures.
“We stated three specific actionable items and asked them to show us their intentions within 72 hours or we would begin protesting,” Oye said. She wants the district to develop a plan to reaffirm their commitment to Black residents, get SROs out of the buildings and only invite CPD officers in during clearly defined emergencies.
College students have historically been a source of calls for change and social action.
“I find that we often look to leverage the financial strength and weight of the university name and access that name and relationships provide,” Velazquez said.
Over the years, student activists have asked their schools’ endowments to divest in issues like South African apartheid and the occupation of the West Bank. A few years ago, OSU students joined an effort from United Students Against Sweatshops in an action asking universities to break ties with Sodexo because, the students argue, the company did not pay a living wage to employees working on campus. The Responsible Endowments Coalition currently encourages students to demand divestment from the fossil fuel industry.
But this action against CPD is not the same as selling a block of stock or changing suppliers of t-shirts.
For the students, it is personal. CPD shot Oye with wooden bullets while protesting at the Statehouse.
”CCS is 77% minority students, most of whom are Black. CPD was just found in the Matrix Report to use a significant disparity of force against Black residents,” Allwein pointed out. The 330 page report completed in August 2019, was an operational review of CPD.
Velazquez, who identifies as Latino, sees that disparity while living off-campus.
“A CPD officer can slow down and follow me while I walk to my apartment, but look the other way when fraternities are holding loud parties in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.
The letter from the three OSU student government leaders demands dissolving any relationship with CPD as a reprimand for intolerable behavior and support the safety of students. It calls for expanded jurisdiction of OSUPD in areas where students live off-campus and the elimination of use of any military grade weapons by OSUPD. It asks OSU to publicly condemn the anti-Black violence by CPD and create a new safety plan that affirms the commitment to Black student safety.
For CCS, the petition Oye and Alllwein delivered to CCS contained demands that were simple and clear: get Columbus Police SROs out of school buildings and use that money for personnel that will enhance – not harm – the students’ lives; develop a plan to reaffirm the commitment to Black residents of the district; and restrict interaction with CPD to clearly defined emergencies.
The contract between OSUPD and CPD is defined as a Mutual Aid Agreement. It generally states that they each have their own personnel, equipment and facilities that they can voluntarily offer for use by the other when it is not otherwise in use. It gives OSUPD limited jurisdiction to conduct police work off-campus and allows OSUPD to invite CPD on campus for help with special circumstances, such as sexual assault. They can also patrol together off-campus in the University District. The current contract was signed in May of 2019 and runs for three years. It can be terminated by either party with 60 days written notice. It can also be amended.
This contract mostly does not pay for services in either direction. The one exception is OSUPD paying up to $150,000 per year for joint patrol. The student leaders are currently tracking down the payments of approximately $1.4 million during the 2019 Fiscal year made by OSU to CPD. Higazi thinks this money is for special duty police during large events like football games.
“The administrators we have been talking with keep emphasizing that most of what OSU needs from CPD is traffic control,” Higazi said.
The contract with CCS is much more specific with regards to the duties of the sworn Columbus police officers called SROs. One is assigned to each high school building each day there are classes in session. They patrol the campus, respond to requests from the administration and work with school officials to develop safety protocols. The contract clearly delineates what they can’t do as well, including be responsible for disciplinary issues or issues that can be resolved by the school’s authority rather than court intervention. The fee for this service was $1,229,934 for the last school year, which works out to approximately $40 per hour for the officers.
This two-year contract expired on June 30 and provided that negotiations should have already started for the next contract.
“When we asked some of the board members if they were negotiating already, they said they were waiting for reports from CPD,” Allwein said. The petition organizer said she was shocked when she learned that the contract requires SROs to submit all activity reports to the district on a monthly basis.
As of June 30, the contract had expired, and no new contract between CCS and CPD has been put in place.
Privately, the student government leaders have been meeting with administration officials to suss out how their demands can be met. The administration told the students that they have not purchased any military grade weapons through the Federal Government’s 1033 program for several years. Higazi would like a guarantee that they will not resume using this program that was started over 20 years ago and allowed police departments to buy military equipment.
A group of over 500 faculty wrote their own letter supporting the students’ demands on June 9. Publicly, the administration was relatively silent on the demands for a month.
University officials declined an interview for this article, but instead gave this statement:
“We know our students, faculty and staff are hurting. We are here to support them, and we are inspired by their commitment to this cause. We must all work together to end racism, abuse, discrimination, bigotry and hatred. We are committed to continuing this important dialogue with our student government leaders.”
OSU President Drake’s statement on the current upheaval was distributed on June 10. In it he does not refer to the student’s demands specifically but does report that he has asked Mayor Andrew Ginther to reserve a spot on the new police chief advisory panel for an OSU student. Higazi supports having students present in all public forums on the issue, even though she is not convinced that this specific appointment will lead to substantive change for the university.
“I wasn’t satisfied,” Higazi said. “We specifically called upon our university to hold CPD accountable. That letter does not call out the CPD for their actions and the ways that they have inflicted harm on our community.”
Three weeks later on June 30, the administration expressed specific disapproval of recent actions by CPD when they released the initial plan for addressing the students’ demands. The centerpiece of the plan will be a standing Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) including student members which will develop a safety action plan, review future purchases through the 1033 program, and create recommendations for additional training required for special duty CPD officers on campus.
Students are not happy with even more money being spent on policing. “It feels like a huge slap in the face, an attempt to pacify students with the creation of another committee that no one asked for,” Velasquez said.
The Columbus Board of Education did not meet the 72 hour deadline requested by the petition so the activists showed up at the home of Board President Jennifer Adair to protest on June 8. Private conversations with various board members culminated in an announcement by Adair at the June 16 school board meeting.
“This is a perfect time to pause [the contract] and reevaluate the needs of our district around safety and security in our district as a whole,” she said.
She then announced the formation of a Safety and Security Working Group of district residents to convene by June 30. Allwein said she considers this a 50% win. The SROs were out of the schools at the end of June.
CCS Board member Carol Beckerle spoke directly to the organizers, “We are really grateful for your input and your time and your energy and your passion. It was good to see the results of your education being put to good use.”
Oye, Allwein and the growing list of CCS activists expect to watch the work of the working group carefully and are continuing to organize to press for their demands.
Higazi, Velasquez and many other OSU students now have much more work to do on the new PSAC to help achieve their goal of cutting ties with CPD.