Protesters demand Columbus City Schools cut ties with police

Joel Oliphint
Kanyinsola Oye (front right) and others protest near the North Linden home of Columbus Board of Education President Jennifer Adair.

On Monday night, protesters gathered in front of the North Linden home of Jennifer Adair, president of the Columbus City Schools Board of Education, to demand the district terminate its contract with the Columbus Division of Police. The mood, though, was anything but contentious.

In a bizarre twist on the typical interaction between protesters and those in positions of power, Adair took on the role of facilitator, welcoming organizers (and CCS grads) Kanyinsola Oye, Julia Allwein and others with posterboard signs affixed to her garage reading “Thank you!” and “I am listening.”

“We hope you like our protest,” Oye said to Adair beforehand while standing in the board president’s driveway.

“We're super proud of you,” said Adair, flanked by fellow board member Carol Beckerle. “For us, this is meaningful, and it is the time — right now — to start this conversation. We, as a society, have a lot of challenges. We have our young people literally screaming at us to do something. And the thing is, we gotta do it together. We are all part of this challenge, and I believe that our district itself has issues of systemic racism that we need to address. So I'm excited for the protest tonight. I can't wait to hear your speeches. We are here to listen.”

The pleasantries, though, did not keep Oye, Allwein and more than 100 other protesters from pulling any rhetorical punches in their impassioned speeches, placards (“Disband the police”) and chants (“CPD out of CCS!”; “Whose schools? Our schools!”) as they clogged the street and marched in the early evening sun for about an hour.

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For Oye and Allwein, both graduates of Columbus Alternative High School (CAHS), the breaking point came after attending Downtown protests on Sunday, May 31. “I got hit with three wooden bullets. Julia got hit with one wooden bullet,” Oye said by phone Monday afternoon. “The next day I was sitting down in my room thinking [about] the way it all played out, and it was just a lot for me. I couldn't go to any protest. I couldn't do anything, because I needed to take care of myself. So I was like, 'If I can't do anything, I might as well stay at home and see what changes I can make in our system.'”

Inspiration came when she read a recent letter that Ohio State Undergraduate Student Body President Roaya Higazi and representatives from two other student government groups sent to the leadership at OSU. In the letter, which has now gathered nearly 20,000 signatures, the organizers make five demands, most notably that, “The Ohio State University Police Department (OSUPD) immediately cease contractual agreements with Columbus Police Department for any and all on-campus investigations, services, and events.”

“The push for us to take that kind of action came from seeing the different ways that our protesters here in Columbus, many of them being students, were treated by the Columbus Police Department,” Higazi said. “I saw my own friends get pepper sprayed, and I saw the impact of that on them. I’ve seen the way that people I know have been assaulted by the police over the past few days, and especially for black students, seeing how traumatizing that is. So we knew that this is the only course of action that could really address this issue at its root. … We needed to take steps beyond just dialogue.”

“I read her letter, and I was like, ‘This is so inspiring. This is so effective. This is so smart,’” said Oye, a rising junior at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “If OSU is working on it, CCS has to get on it, too.”

In the current political climate, a large school district severing ties with its local police department isn’t unprecedented. Last week,Minneapolis Public Schools terminated its contract with the city’s police department in the wake of George Floyd’s death.Portland also removed armed officers from its schools, and,according to Time, similar efforts are underway in at least 20 other cities nationwide.

Oye reached out to Allwein and other friends, and they wrote their own letter to CCS leadership, demanding, among other things, that “The Columbus City Schools District terminates [its] contractual agreement with the Columbus Police Department for school resource officers and instead uses the funding to increase counselors, nurses, and social workers in schools.”

Local activist groups such as the Columbus Freedom Coalition and Showing Up For Racial Justice Columbus signed on, as did school organizations Southside STAY, Clintonville Go Public and others. On Friday, organizers sent the letter to CCS Superintendent Talisa Dixon and the Columbus School Board.

In addition to the removal of the 19 police officers currently assigned to CCS buildings (reportedly at a cost of more than $1 million), the letter also asks the district for an action plan devised with student input to reaffirm its commitment to black students, and it calls for the district to cease dispatching Columbus police “for all school-related events and [limit] communication with the Columbus Police Department except in the case of an emergency, which will be strictly defined, such as extreme acts of violence as in the case of a school shooting.”

“It's not enough to just terminate the contract. We need to see a commitment that cops are not going to be called to our school casually. They're not going to be at community dialogue events,” said Allwein, currently a student at Ohio State. “We're asking CCS to acknowledge that the Columbus police are not making our students safer.” (Alive’s request for comment from CPD was not answered.)

Oye and Allwein both noted that part of the problem isn’t merely the presence of the police; it’s also the lack of other resources in a school like CAHS, which is often talked about as one of the best CCS has to offer. “When you walk in, you notice the heat right away, because there's no air conditioning. You notice the rats and roaches on the floor,” Allwein said. “We don't have these basic things that students have a right to. Why are we financing an armed officer in all 19 high schools when students don't have their basic rights? … It sends a clear message to the students about what we value.”

The organizers have heard from critics with concerns over safety if police officers were removed from their kids’ schools. “I think people's instant reaction is to say, ‘No, that's just not possible.’ But if you read and you analyze everything, you see that it's very much possible,” Oye said. “Sometimes parents feel like, ‘What about safety and security?’ But safety and security is not the same thing as CPD.”

“Of course safety should be prioritized for our students. But the cops have never, ever been the way to guarantee that safety, and there are alternatives out there that do guarantee that safety in a much more robust way,” said Allwein, who pointed to the example of aschool counselor who defused a situation with an active school shooter in Columbus in 2017.

A couple of hours before the 6 p.m. protest on Monday, the school district issued a response to the letter, acknowledging “it’s an appropriate issue for discussion” and writing, in part: “The District’s contract with the City of Columbus for the provision of School Resource Officers in our school buildings is open for renewal. As we discuss and review the safety needs as a school district, we will have an open and honest dialogue with the Columbus Police Department leadership regarding our expectations for School Resource Officers in our buildings. In that dialogue, we will represent the concerns expressed to us by parents, students, staff, and the community.”

As much as board members Adair, Beckerle and Michael Cole emphasized their willingness to listen to the protesters’ concerns and ideas on Monday evening, in an interview afterward, they refrained from making any concrete statements regarding the future of Columbus police "resource officers" in the district’s schools. “We had incidents last week where there were questionable practices by the police department, so I think it is [time] for all of our community to have these discussions about what does racism look like in criminal justice and law enforcement, but also in education,” Adair said, noting that the contract between CCS and CPD is up at the end of June.

When asked whether students could encounter tear gas and wooden projectiles from Columbus police officers during a protest and still feel safe with those same officers at their schools, Adair acknowledged the trauma of those experiences — particularly for black students — but she also said she believes it’s possible to feel safe. "I think that we have seen some good examples of what a community policing relationship could look like,” Adair said, noting the bike patrols in North Linden.

Oye, Allwein and others are not satisfied with the CCS response thus far, and they pledged to continue the protests until their demands are met.

“I've made it my summer goal before I go back to school that CCS terminate their contact with CPD. So if it takes every day of the week to be rallying in front of each board member’s house, we will do that,” Oye said. “And if you're not getting behind what we want, we will vote you out. I will make sure, even while I'm in D.C., to run a campaign against them. This isn't over. We are going to get what we want.”

Kanyinsola Oye (front left) and others protest outside the North Linden home of Columbus Board of Education President Jennifer Adair, pictured with board member Carol Beckerle in the background.