I’m speaking today with freelance journalist Andy Kopsa whose work has appeared seemingly everywhere: The New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, Cosmo, and her most recent piece from the December issue of In These Times that we’ll be discussing today - and that you heard an excerpt of in the introduction - is about her investigation of Des Moines Public Schools’ 2021 shift away from the School Resource Officer, or SRO, program and toward investing in restorative justice, it has the incredible title, The City That Kicked Cops Out of Schools and Tried Restorative Practices Instead
Andy had mentioned in a tweet before our recording that “Iowa is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to public education.” That’s to say, so much of what Andy reported in her piece is directly tied to the particular political context of Iowa in the 21st century - as we get into in the episode - failing to address deep dem ographic divisions & whose embrace of endless cynical, dead-end, culture wars has only deepened divisions. Only ⅓ of predominantly older white Iowans live in rural areas, half of the Black population is concentrated in just 4 cities, of which Des Moines is the largest, and nearly 60% of Iowa farmland owners don’t farm. So while Iowa is an increasingly non-white, urban population, our political & cultural identity is wrapped up in the nostalgia of the white rural family farm, a factor which explains the radicalization & consolidation of political power in the Iowa GOP, who hold a majority everywhere Iowans are represented.
A headline from the November elections read, “Iowa's GOP clout in Legislature, Congress most since 1950s”, and you better believe they are governing as such. While national headlines often focus on larger states like Texas & Florida, the education culture war really started here. Iowa is the canary in the coal mine. That’s an appropriate lens we should bring to the conversation at the intersection of racialized policing & punishment & the role it plays in our schools, particularly when communities of Color decide to go another way & invest in restorative practices.
Andy Kopsa is an investigative journalist whose work has appeared in NYTimes, FP, Atlantic, Cosmo, Al Jazeera, Guardian, Playboy, and more.
0:00:00.2 Andy Kopsa: We can try to undo the harm, but sometimes, there's more to it. Just a simple conversation won't get over it. It might take years, it might take days or weeks. But Mr. Musa adds, if we can come to an agreement where kids can say, "Hey, this happened. We're going to move on from it. We don't have to even speak to each other, but we can finish out the school year and both of us will be successful in our own ways." He told me that's the winner.
0:00:28.8 Nick Covington: Hello, and welcome to episode 124 of our podcast at the Human Restoration Project. My name is Nick Covington, and I'm the creative director at the Human Restoration Project. This episode is brought to you by our supporters, three of whom are Marcelo Marcelo Viana Neto, Doron Zinger, and Kassandrea Scozzafava. Thank you so much for your ongoing support and you can find more about our work at humanrestorationproject.org. I'm speaking today with free freelance journalist, Andy Kopsa, whose work has appeared seemingly everywhere. The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Cosmo, and her most recent piece from the December issue of In These Times that we'll be discussing today and that you heard an excerpt of in the introduction is about her investigation of Des Moines Public Schools 2021 shift away from the school resource officer or SRO program and toward investing in restorative justice. It has the incredible title, the city that kicked cops out of schools and tried restorative practices instead. Andy had mentioned in a tweet before our recording that Iowa is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to public education. That's to say so much of what Andy reported on in her piece is directly tied to the particular political context of Iowa in the 21st century, failing to address deep demographic divisions and whose embrace of endless cynical dead-end culture wars has only deepened divisions.
0:01:57.0 NC: Only one third of predominantly older White Iowans live in rural areas. Half of the Black population is concentrated in just four cities of which Des Moines is the largest and nearly 60% of Iowa farm land owners don't farm. So while Iowa is an increasingly non-White urban population, our political and cultural identity is wrapped up in the nostalgia of the White rural family farm, a factor which explains the radicalization and consolidation of political power in the Iowa GOP, who hold a majority everywhere Iowans are represented. A headline from the November elections read, "Iowa's GOP clout in legislature and Congress most since 1950s." And you better believe they are governing as such. While national headlines often focus on larger states like Texas and Florida, the education culture war really started here. Iowa is the canary in the coal mine. And that's an appropriate lens we should bring to the conversation at the intersection of racialized policing and punishment and the role it plays in our schools, particularly when communities of color decide to go another way and invest in restorative practices.
0:03:19.1 NC: Thank you so much for joining me today, Andy Kopsa.
0:03:27.2 AK: Well, thank you. I am glad to be here.
0:03:29.1 NC: So the city referred to in the title is Des Moines, Iowa.
0:03:32.4 AK: The content of the piece is so powerful. There's so much that I want to get into in our conversation, but let's just start at the beginning with the relevant question that a colleague of mine actually taught as a high school history elective, and that now the National Democratic Party is asking in revisiting our first in the nation caucus status. And that's why Iowa? Why not visit and report on what's happening in Los Angeles, Oakland, Arlington, Chicago, these other much larger cities who have made similar moves?
0:04:01.5 AK: I'm Iowa, through and through. I was born and raised on a farm in the middle of nowhere that is still there. So everything always leads me home. I mean, and I think, too, that you make a really good point here with your lead and about the first in the nation caucus status, which of course is up in the air. But I think that we have a special place or we did have a special place in this sort of national conversation. And so Iowa is always where I am. It's home. I mean, Iowa's home. So that is really why, but I think the reason that Des Moines stuck out to me, frankly, was because it's unique in it's doing things that LA and Chicago didn't. So there's a part in the piece where it talks about Chicago and LA kind of going halfway and sort of partially removing SROs or partially doing blah, blah, blah. But Des Moines was unique in that it did both simultaneously. And some of that was by design, some of it was just happenstance. And so that was unique in the nation. And I wanted to, and I was thrilled to see that that was something that was happening in Iowa because there's precious little good news out of Iowa.
0:05:11.5 AK: And this to me was tremendous news. Also, and just sort of selfishly you may have read in the piece, I actually was put into a juvenile facility when I was 16. And so there was nothing like this kind of process of restorative practices. So it was kind of selfish in that way, but also Des Moines is doing something extremely unique, I think, that needs more conversation.
0:05:35.2 NC: And it's interesting because you also had put out in a tweet this morning, you said that Iowa is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to public education. So what did you mean by that when you had Iowa on your mind in that context?
0:05:50.0 AK: In that context, I think it's interesting that we hear a lot about the terrible things that, for example, Texas is doing with education or the terrible things that DeSantis is up to with education or insert whatever, anti-trans girls bills, whatever, it's like people... Kim Reynolds has been outflanking DeSantis and Abbott. What is getting ready to happen in Iowa, and this, is that they are going to introduce a bill that pushes to defund public education further with voucher bills. I think that the canary in the coal mine, to me is that Iowa used to be a sort of bellwether, right? We used to be a reasonable state. Like I'm thinking back in the Robert Ray, era where people could kind of turn and look at us and like, "Oh, we're reasonable folk, whatever." Well, we've shifted that now. We're no longer necessarily a bellwether, which sort of has a good connotation. We're the canary in the coal mine now, right? And so with public education, I think that the attacks and the onslaught last during the election cycle from the Iowa GOP, just they're telegraphing their next move, specifically to DMPS.
0:07:07.5 AK: She is very clear about what she wants to do, and what she wants to do is destroy public education. And like I said, she's outflanking these other bigger states that are going to get more and more attention. And I think it's important that people think about Iowa as much smaller, much more manageable, much easier to see what's going on with education or with any policy issue, but the larger states get a lot more kind of attention on that.
0:07:37.4 NC: It's like now everything gets filtered through that culture war lens. And as the country becomes more polarized, that is reflected in the local state parties, too. Even though something might not be an Iowa issue, suddenly it becomes an Iowa issue because it's a focus of the national conversation, the national culture war, the national election cycle. And that's reflected in things like, Kim Reynolds had run this ad during the election cycle that said like, Iowans, we get up early, but we're not woke. And it sounds so hollow and artificial coming out of her, but it's so emblematic too of these longer term, I think, demographic shifts in Iowa, particularly like these urban rural divides. And I think that'll be something that we start to unpack when we get into this issue with urban education versus rural and even some of the ideas that Reynolds and the Iowa GOP have for their voucher programs, for all these other kinds of changes that they wanna make. It's kind of situated in this culture war context that's not just a political one, but it's one about demographics. It's very much about the... Yeah, go ahead.
0:08:50.3 AK: No, I was just gonna say, and it's made up. It's absolutely, it's garbage, it's nonsense, it's crazy talk. And so, but your point about demographics of when I grew up, everybody I knew, their dad and mom were farmers or worked in the agricultural industry, not big ag, not big ag, I'm talking, they worked at the co-op, they sold seed, they whatever. But now it's like people drive 50 miles to go to Waterloo from where I grew up to go to work and come back. So it's like, this divide doesn't exist anymore. Like this notion of farm people and urban people is garbage and it's poison. And I think that it is beneficial to one party only and that's the GOP. More people are of color. Marshalltown, which is a nearby district is incredibly diverse. And while these are just pockets and while obviously Iowa is White as White can be, there is a shift. There is a fundamental shift in these sort of micro-opulences like Marshalltown or Fort Dodge or these other places. Yeah, so I think that rural-urban is a real myth.
0:10:08.0 AK: It's hard to... You get it. It's hard to explain kind of what's behind that. But I think that it's a lot more fluid. Those divides are not as big as we think. And I think that rural and urban in Iowa has become even more of that coded language versus geography, right? I mean, it's like, "Come one, man,"
0:10:27.3 NC: Again, it's a cultural kind of signal, right? Like you're part of a rural identity, even if you live in a huge suburb of Des Moines. You still identify as a rural GOP voting person with all of the accoutrement that come along with signaling that identity, even though you live in a suburb that has a $100,000 people. But that differentiates you from say someone who is urban in big scare quotes there, particularly for Des Moines. And so if we bring the context into Des Moines public schools and I think we can start to talk about Roosevelt in particular, right?
0:11:06.8 AK: Oh my God, I guess we should, right? Yeah.
0:11:08.9 NC: They're a place where the White student population is less than, was less than half of the student population. So it's kind of impossible, I think, to disentangle those bigger political discussions that are happening between parties and political polarization around demographics and issues of race and geography and those divisions and both what had taken place in Des Moines public schools, your investigation into Roosevelt in particular, and then the, I think, also then the pushback and the response that the negative critiques, which I believe do not necessarily come from the students, the teachers, the people themselves on the ground experiencing it, but are in fact the result of those external forces viewing people in these urban school district, that has the student population taking control, making these own changes and kind of wanting to sabotage that. So before I get too far down to things, the sub-header of the article reads, "Here's what happens when a school rethinks punishment." So let's just get into what happened. What did they do? What's the background?
0:12:19.0 AK: Well, interestingly, I mean, so again, I said that Des Moines public schools are kind of unique in this. What happened seemed very sudden. The long story short, is that the Des Moines Police Department contract renewal was up for their work in public, in Des Moines public schools and high schools, and they walked away from the contract. And in the end, it was an amicable kind of divorce, but it was something that was sort of in the works before then. So what Des Moines public schools did was made a conscious decision to become a quote, "Actively anti-racist school district." And so that's the backdrop. So and I sort of detail this in the piece, is that while there was always activism and always push toward, "Hey, we're this majority minority district," is kind of what people would talk about, is that there was this push to become, not only more culturally aware, but to hire teachers that represent, that look like kids, right? So you hire Black, Latinx, get some people in the room. So those kinds of wheels had already started turning through town hall meetings and things like this that the community was having within itself.
0:13:41.9 AK: And then George Floyd was brutally murdered in front of our eyes, right? And so that's when there was this, the summer that Andrea Sahouri was arrested, the summer that kids from DMPS really got involved and really started making the push toward, "No, we're not gonna stand for this." And so this process that had kind of started, this conversation that kind of had started with DMPS had gotten kicked into overdrive. And so that summer of 2020 or whenever it was, there were town hall meetings that were specifically anti-racist town hall meeting. What the takeaway was, Des Moines Public Schools brought in an outside sort of moderator to oversee that process. They brought in stakeholders that were including students, involving students in the process. What an idea, right? Oh, my! So involving students in the process, families, community organizations, bringing them in and talking to them about George Floyd being murdered, right? And how that makes the kids of color, Black kids feel when they walk into a school and see a police officer and Lyric Sellers, who is amazing and you should talk to her, she said to me safety's subjective, right?
0:15:03.0 AK: It's subjective. When I walk in and see a cop in a school, I'm not worried that I'm gonna get my brains bashed in because I'm White, right? That's not her maybe lived experience. So all of these conversations were underway and the board and AHRQ and this sort of community came together and it was at the end of that summer, it was the overwhelming message was we need to do something different, DMPS. We need to, our kids don't feel safe. The families don't feel safe. And it's not just the fighting in schools. It's gonna happen. Sorry, it's just gonna happen. They're kids. Kids are jerks. I was a jerk when I was a kid. So I was, I was terrible. So it's gonna happen. But the thing that they can control were these armed policemen in the hallway, right? And so that's one part of their... What happened was that the data from, collected from those town halls and it is data. There is data to support this. It was clear that that was one thing that needed to happen for kids of color, Black kids to feel comfortable. And that there was already this sort of restorative, social emotional learning work that had been going on sort of in the background since 2018-ish in DMPS.
0:16:26.0 AK: And so what happened then was this sort of inflection point when the cops terminated the contract. It was a shock. They weren't expecting it. And so they were caught on the back foot to Moines Public Schools, even though the conversation had sort of started. "Hey, maybe police officers, you consider being unarmed," or "Perhaps you consider maybe not being in uniform." And the police were like, "No, you know what? We're just gonna, we're gonna cut our losses here, and we're gonna go away." And so that was like, "Okay, well, that's fine because that's what we're hearing from our people, but thanks for the notice." So that happened in February, I think of 2021, which was which was sort of shocking to, if you listen to as many hours the school board meetings as I have, you will register the shock when that was announced by some of the great people at DMPS who had those conversations with the police. So what happened was that freed up $750,000.
0:17:39.4 NC: Top change.
0:17:39.5 AK: Hey, that's defunding the police, right? For my fiscal conservative friends, that's a refunding people's taxpayer dollars and reallocating it to appropriate use. And what that did for DMPS was allowed them to say, "Okay, we have to implement something immediately now. And so we have to go forward with our plan to implement restorative practices as a proactive, not just reactive, right?" So proactive program to not just avoid disciplinary issues, but to start meeting the needs of our kids, right? What happens before they even get in the door? Do they have food? Do they have healthcare? Do they have a home, right? So that $750,000 came in handy when they brought in 20 new people. That's a huge hire. During COVID, right? So it wasn't necessarily planned at that moment, but they met it. They met that moment. They met that sort of moment and brought in RP trained staff. Urban Dreams provided, I don't know if you're familiar with Urban Dreams, but they're an amazing community organization that has been involved in the historically Black community in over Sixth Avenue that was already working in the restorative space. So they started partnerships with them. I think Isaiah Knox, who is now Senator, State Senator-elect, Isaiah Knox is the Director of Urban Dreams. So they worked with them and also with the International Institute of Restorative Practices, which is the only post-grad university in the United States that teaches this in a Master's level.
0:19:33.2 AK: They brought them in to do... Yeah, they brought them in to do training. I mean, they went all in, right? So it was a huge scramble. And so the first year didn't look so hot from the outside. And one thing that you've got to, that I think is really critical that people understand, and Deb Henry, who is an amazing teacher and was the Des Moines Area Education Association rep at the time, said the pushback that she was hearing during the first year was from suburban teacher or teachers that were like, "Oh," sort of like, risking. And it was funny, it didn't make it into the piece, but God love her, she said, "Well, guess what? You don't get an opinion."
0:20:14.1 NC: Exactly.
0:20:15.9 AK: You don't live in Des Moines. Is this upsetting you? I'm sorry, it's going okay. And the first year was a slog. And it's not all sunshine and roses. It's just simply not. But I was blown away at how that buy-in from the top administration to the top, like Principal Schappaugh is amazing. He is an amazing leader. To his buy-in at Roosevelt that empowered his staff from teachers to food service to operations folks.
0:20:52.0 AK: Like it is truly a group effort. And that has been critical. So where they're at now, from where they were in February, 2021, when the cops said, "Hey, we're leaving," which landed with a thud in the local media. But they're doing a hell of a job. There's problems, there's still calls to police, there always will be, but they're making... They are slow and steady, and it doesn't happen quickly enough for some people. And that is where the exploitation of urban comes in by the GOP, right? They hired 20 new folks. They've allocated, I believe they hired 13 additional this year, folks, they do ongoing training. And so I only looked at Roosevelt and from what I see and from the stats, which again, Iowa, their stats, go clickety clack on your computer and you can pull them up on the Iowa Department of Education website that bears out that some of this is working and it's working well.
0:22:04.6 NC: And I think with any huge cultural shift as this must be, of course it's gonna take time.
0:22:10.5 AK: Yeah, paradigm, right?
0:22:12.1 NC: So in order to, especially if we're considering February, 2021 is near the end of one school year, no major changes are gonna happen from February to May. And yet, like you said, Des Moines was kind of playing the cards that they were dealt. And when I printed off the piece and read it on paper here, but I put about as many exclamation points around that $750,000 numbers I could imagine, because it really is like emblematic of that notion. People criticize using that phrase of abolishing the police and all those kinds of things. But the notion is that, well, then it's not just that, then nothing happens. That money and those resources actually go back into the community to sort out other ways of either being proactive in order to prevent future incidents from happening, or they don't have to be reactive in ways that are overly punitive, particularly when we understand the racial outcomes of those things. And you outlined all those in the piece. And another part that I had outlined here, cause you mentioned the Principal, I loved his honesty and his candor in his answer that he gave here about the replacement of SROs with RP has changed in his own thinking.
0:23:24.1 AK: And he said, "What I have learned is that there were times that I was asking for the SRO to be present that were not necessary, because we do have the skills and resources to deescalate situations now. But when you're in the midst of it you have this resource, it's very easy just to ask for the police." So it's like just opening up your toolkit and saying, "We can't use the cops anymore." We can't use the cops to, arrest kids or then once it gets in their hands, it can escalate into the legal system very easily. But now when we have to deal with students on relational terms, when we have to use those other tools in our toolkits, well then we actually start to reflect back on the previous practices and say, "Well, that probably wasn't right for me to escalate that, to involve an officer and then contribute to consequences that may or may not happen outside of the school system there, too." One thing that we kind of can get into here then is the fact that you had actually spent time in these schools.
0:24:23.3 NC: You weren't just reporting from afar, you went and talked to these people. But what I appreciated is that this wasn't just like a one drop in, one and done kind of thing. Can you describe the approach? Cause you actually had a longitudinal, you visited two times for a good lengthy amount of time there at Roosevelt. How did you approach that issue? How did that help you understand what was going on? Explain to us the students that you talked with. Let's talk about the think tank, like how is it actually working in those spaces?
0:24:52.6 AK: Yeah, right. I would have hung out longer if they would have let me. I mean, honestly, I mean, it's... When I do these kinds of investigations, it's so valuable for me to just be able to observe. And it's actually an honor to be allowed into that space. I consider any time that anyone allows me to hear their stories and tell their stories, it's a huge honor and I don't take that lightly. And the interesting thing about being able to go in the spring, which was bananas, because everybody was still wearing masks. It was getting towards graduation time. So it was like this different sort of frenetic pace. And so I was able to establish a rapport with a few of the kids, right? And sort of take my lead from them and be able to meet the community. I mean, honestly, I was expecting from some of the reports that I was just gonna enter and it was gonna be Bedlam, right? It was just gonna be bananas. It was gonna be like, pack, everybody's packing heat, whatever. And it would just, it was just high school, right?
0:26:01.7 AK: So that's not, again, not to say this is a Pollyanna view, but it was very, a frenetic pace. I ran around with Mr. Ahmed Musa, who is out there doing the Lord's work and running around talking to kids. And again, they were still getting their feet underneath them as well. So the RP folks were still getting their feet under them because again, they had just started. I mean, they weren't even like several months into it, right? So it was great to go in and be able to see that. I think one young girl that I spoke with, Vanessa, who's highlighted in the piece, and I can't help but bring my personal experience into this. And I'm not a young Black girl, right? But I was a young girl. And to see her, from the spring when she was, very trepidatious, I mean, you gotta consider that COVID colors the before times and the after time. And with Vanessa, the last time she had been in school was she was in seventh and eighth grade, right? And that was virtual learning. And so she went from a middle school environment to high school.
0:27:13.7 AK: And so she was completely discombobulated, but she talked to me. And so the importance of making that kind of connection and listening to kids where they are, by the time I went and saw back in the fall and then transition, and I say it in the piece, I didn't recognize her. I'm like, who is this kid that's so happy to see me? I'm like, "What?" And she was like, and she started talking and she's like, "Oh, well, you were talking about your daughter and blah, blah, blah." I'm like, "Holy crap!" this is Vanessa talking. And I think that in the piece, I do take pains to cite actual experts in this field. And I relayed that story of just Vanessa from springtime to fall to Ann Gregory, who is literally one of the foremost experts in this arena. She was very clear, like not knowing anything about Vanessa. From the outside, what she was able to identify in that kind of growth, aside from whatever personal growth a girl goes through in a few months, was that Mr. Musa, the think tank, that Chapa, everybody responding with a trauma informed view versus punitive view with Vanessa, allowed her to feel more comfortable in class and go to class so that they help facilitate that transition.
0:28:41.2 AK: So those tiny little moments in the hallway, those tiny little points of connection, which is literally one of the tiers of RP is like, "Hey, how you doing, Vanessa? What's going on? Why are you in the hallway? What's going on? Are you on your way to class? What's going on? Right?" And again, if I go back again, I hope that I'm allowed back in a year. I mean, I want to see what happens with Vanessa next, because if this community approach continues to take place, and if students are allowed agency and understanding in the RP system, I'm excited to see where that kid goes. And I think that that goes with any of the kids I talk to. The time that it takes to report stories like this is supremely frustrating to people, because we all want that quick turn and burn, but you just don't get that kind of perspective on what's going on. Things could change drastically, and God knows what could happen in the next, whatever, but for now it was a win, right? So it's a big deal working, just on a side note, as a journalist myself, I work with a lot of folks who have gone through trauma.
0:29:58.1 AK: I work with a lot of victims of sexual assault. I've worked with people from, who survived like from rouge. So it's like these kids have experienced their own kind of trauma. It's not the same trauma as the assault survivor or the genocide survivor or the whatever, but you come to them and give them the agency and the dignity of their humanity as a reporter. That's my job when I approach these kids, and they're all... We're all products of trauma. It's just a sliding scale, I think. And that's the approach that I take when I talk to kids. And that was the everlasting frustration to some of my editors, because I was like, "I'm not gonna push them for what you're asking me to push them for," because it's not going to get at the story. So yeah, it was a gift to have that, that kind of longitudinal space, right? That's not often available, but, I think that more of that kind of reporting is necessary to actually illuminate what's really going on, not just a point in time or not just a one-off soundbite.
0:31:12.7 NC: Yeah, I think it was incredible in the piece, because you got to see the growth in those students as the results of these practices. And then just to hear in their own words too, like here were, in Vanessa's words, right? The anxiety that she had of coming back to the chaos, the perceived chaos, right? It might've been fine from everybody else, but for her, it's like overwhelming. Yeah.
0:31:33.8 AK: Yeah, I mean, going to a high school, shit, I mean, I had 70 kids in my high school class, right? I mean, and that was the largest class to go through. And high school's intimidating. She had 500 kids in her class coming from two years of COVID learning. So it is chaos to go back to that, right?
0:31:52.8 NC: What I think is awesome about the restorative approach then is it doesn't take that trauma and then say, "Well, the way that we're gonna deal with this is through exclusion and through punishment, because your behavior in the way that you are dealing with that trauma, the way that you're communicating that to the world doesn't fit into the norms of school and the norms of the way that we expect the average person who hasn't experienced trauma," which of course now...
0:32:20.7 AK: Everybody.
0:32:20.8 NC: If you have any kind of restorative mindset, you'll realize, right, again, that sliding scale that you referenced, but those hard and fast punitive policies are made for some ideal person in mind, right? But the restorative practices acknowledges that, right, not only is that behavior communication, but we can mitigate, right, not only... The trauma-based approach is we can not only mitigate that behavior, but we can help that person kind of grow and become integrated back into the learning community of school, back into the communities outside of school. And the people that are going to do that work are not going to come from without. So for example, one of the things that we learned as a country as the results of the Ferguson Black Lives Matter protests is, right, the police in Ferguson, the vast majority of them did not come from the community of Ferguson.
0:33:04.6 AK: Of course not, no.
0:33:07.9 NC: So it's so easy to punish and police people that you don't know, that you don't identify with, because the law is something that you can do to them without having to feel the social consequences of it, right? But it's impossible if you're coming from that community to say like, "Well, the people that we're policing and putting in jail are me, they're my people, they're my neighbors, they're my cousins, they're my neighbor's kids."
0:33:33.7 AK: They're my children, they're my 10-year-old, right?
0:33:33.7 NC: Exactly.
0:33:35.9 AK: It's like, what? Okay, yeah.
0:33:37.1 NC: So then the people who are coming in to lead that restorative, the restorative practices, like Mr. Musa that you mentioned in the piece is from the community and spends time with them outside of school. You mentioned playing pick-up ball down the street, et cetera. So there's a change of tenor, I bet, coming into the schoolhouse door and taking on that role, but the relationship is there, because he knows for those kids to succeed outside of the school space and inside the school space, he's gonna have to work to maintain that relationship. And of course, that work is messier.
0:34:06.9 AK: They all do, yeah.
0:34:06.9 NC: T takes a lot longer, but it's more rewarding in the long run for communities, for schools, for individuals, than exclusionary and punitive a bit, which just takes that trauma and bottles it up and tries to push it away somewhere else, where then we know, then those students may be more likely to experience drug and alcohol addiction, to experience violence and sexual abuse. And then it just cycles into the community, where then they become the people who do those things to other people too. So it's like short circuits, that whole trauma loop in the process, which is why I think this is so powerful. And I think too, one of the responses that I started to see on social media once the piece came out, was a tweet from a former Roosevelt student who said, "'That's my high school, this is amazing, there's no place for cops in schools." Former Grandview professor and friend of our organization, Kevin Gannon said, "'My kids go to this school, the staff there is awesome, they really walk the walk." What has the reception been broadly from when the piece came out?
0:35:09.7 AK: I wanna touch on one thing before we move on. Because the thing that is important, and I think that it will be important to you as an educator who's experienced some bad stuff, right? But let's get clear, right? Our teachers have experienced trauma. Our teachers, especially, I mean, across the country, but they are beaten to a pulp through COVID. I'm sorry, they just are, right? They're targeted, they're sinister agendas. And what RP does is absolutely take into account the health and wellbeing, mental health, wellbeing, of staff, of teachers, of making sure that, we know this work is hard and it's extra hard, so we're going to support you teachers. What does that look like, right? So I think that that's an important part of the RP way of working, is that it is about the kids, but you wanna make sure that you take care of, not just the teachers, but all your staff, from bus drivers to custodians to blah, blah, blah. So I just wanted to make sure that that is in there as well. That is absolutely part of what Roosevelt does. And it's part of this year's, they have goal setting, part of this year's goals is getting, what are the teacher need?
0:36:30.9 AK: It sounds stupid, but is it a book group? What are we doing? Or do you just wanna be left alone? What do you want? What can we do for you to make your life better here, because this is hard stuff and it's gonna get harder.
0:36:44.4 NC: In my mind, I think oftentimes those, the structures and systems of schools that alienate and isolate kids have the same impact on adults, too. So I would say that a practice probably isn't restorative if it makes the situation for the adults equally chaotic and stressful. If it increases their stress and the chaos, et cetera, then that probably isn't restorative either. So it's like the purpose is that it restores the relationship, it restores that, right? That connectivity, that community, both to the adults and the kids in the building alike. And that's the part that makes it restorative.
0:37:21.1 AK: Right, right. And so it's what some people experience in their schools, it's the same kind of thing with like a teacher maybe experiencing something punitive. I don't know if you know anything about that, but experiencing anything punitive from their administration versus, it's the same thing to your point. But that doesn't mean there aren't guardrails. That doesn't mean there isn't accountability. This kind of dumb tails into the response. By and large, it's been a good response. The biggest critics, I was kind of on tenterhooks about how Lyric was gonna see it. She's like, this is great. And the school, I've gotten some good feedback because I'm always concerned about how I represent people. And they were like, this seems like it's getting at what we're trying to do. So it was like this very sort of stoic reserve, good job. So I took that as a good response. And I think it's getting shared a lot. And I think it's kind of... It kind of surprised me. I don't know that it is getting such a big pickup, but I guess it speaks to people's desire to see something different happening.
0:38:31.0 AK: And I think that's just for me as part of my process too, I do try to engage with folks who try to engage in as honest brokers feedback. One thing that I do think, one response I got was like, the restorative justice paradigm versus restorative practices. Restorative justice is often in the carceral system, where it's adults who have to be, where there is a very clear victim of violence or whatever. And I think that's really separating that out from what restorative practice and school are. So, I mean, I think that there's a lot of education that still needs to happen. And that was a very valid feedback. It's like, but what are we focusing on the victim? There's a lot of language that still needs to be talked about within the system. I think it's perceived as a lot more sunshine and roses than I thought it would be. I mean, there's still issues. I've gotten some feedback from parents of middle school kids. And I think middle school is a different animal, honestly.
0:39:31.1 NC: Oh yeah, it always is.
0:39:31.8 AK: By far. And I would love to, and I'm open to speaking with them because I think their experience is valid. And I do think, but it is a very different animal than Roosevelt High School.
0:39:41.3 NC: Yeah, and something that is a positive aspect of school systems as well. And I think regarding the middle school situation, I think it's interesting because perhaps, there should be like an onboarding or transition like, "Hey, if we know these restorative practices work at the high school level, and those students are going to eventually become high schoolers, what are we doing to support those restorative practices and scaffold them down the line?" So that way, middle school students can become maybe student-led practitioners of that work by the time they become in high school. How far down the line does that then go, where we can say, middle schoolers become high schoolers, and how far down you have to go to start to support and scaffold that work to, "work at the high school." But I also wonder if there isn't a role then in the long-term plan for this to have those younger kind of identify some student leaders, particularly, I would lean on kids who would often be the ones who would get in trouble and be pushed more of those boundaries and those envelopes and kind of knight them as the would be, you guys are gonna become the leaders in high school, right?
0:40:48.0 NC: So it's like, how can we wrap the supports around you and train you up to become a restorative practices student leader by the time you get into the high school and then that problem maybe takes care of itself, if you could see the transformation of these students who were, "the troublemakers," when they were in middle school, and then become the student leaders by the time they're in high school. I think that's a place for incredible growth. You had mentioned the, it's not all sunshine and rainbows aspect of this. And I think we would be remiss if we didn't talk about some of the criticism of restorative practices as well. So did you hear anything either on the ground or what have you heard either before or since? What are their origins? Do you think they hold up? What's kind of your feel on that?
0:41:27.2 AK: I think, well, first just on the middle school thing, that is part of the DMPS' longterm.
0:41:35.5 NC: Okay, it just makes sense.
0:41:35.6 AK: So I would-Yeah, so again, they do have a projection in goals over the next few years. So they are, I think that maybe the 13 hires and I might be speaking, I would have to check, but I do believe they are moving this into the middle schools. And again, that I think is critical. And I think that there's already some work in some elementaries, but again, that's just on that front. So that is part of their yearly planning is like we're going to systemically try to roll this out. It's just gonna take time and I know that's hard. So some of the pushback do, I think one of the things that is valid is that RP does not, is not a cure-all, it's not. And one of the things that was critical... The key is that it's restorative practices as implemented at Roosevelt High School, that has to be restore, or it has to be employed with fidelity, right? And with consistency. You can't, you can use one aspect, like you can use the circle, right? As sort of a restorative model, but that doesn't work in a silo. You have to have that check and connect at the door.
0:42:53.4 AK: So a lot of pushback to use one example, even within the Roosevelt community was there was this uptick in fighting or the perception of fighting towards the end of the school year in 2021, after the program had only started, right? And so there was this new fighting policy that came into effect in December by DMPS as a response to this perceived uptick in fighting. And so they implemented this sort of three strikes are out, which sort of goes in conflict with RP. But this was at the end of the school year and, A. Hart's term was wrapping up and whatever. So there was sort of a knee jerk response to implement something that seemed kind of to go counter to it to...
0:43:51.1 NC: Stop gap.
0:43:51.9 AK: Stop gap, but that's because it just got started, right? But like anything, it has to be again, employed with fidelity and with buy-in. So it has to be, and I will be candid. I think it was a change in Roosevelt leadership. I think when Principal Schappaugh took over that a lot of staff and even students said to me, they felt a shift because he bought into it.
0:44:16.7 AK: He believes in RP and empowers his folks. But before then, sort of towards the end of the year, it was kind of touch and go. And Deb Henry sort of spoke to that. I don't think it made it into the piece, but she said it was sort of like, we had to get the right people in place. And so even teachers were like, we do not have the right people in the rooms right now. And so, yeah. And so the teachers were sort of pushing back a little towards the end of the year, even though they were at an overall good, they were feeling good about it. They were like, "Jey, listen, man, we gotta get people." So there's growing pains. I think too, that there's this notion that there is an accountability, which is nonsense. Right. It's like, "You know what? The cops still get caught. The cops... I spoke with Jonathan who was arrested, like maybe three days after I left Roosevelt. It's like, there's still accountability. And so I think it's sort of this idea that, "Oh, we're just gonna let kids run the show." And it's like, "No, that's not true." It's not completely true. We're just, we're listening to them, but they don't... It is a very systematic approach.
0:45:28.6 NC: Can I interject here real quick?
0:45:29.3 AK: Yeah, of course. Of course.
0:45:30.7 NC: Sorry, I just wanna say too, and perhaps a shifting definition of accountability, because I think it's a conversation that we've had on our end on say, on the grading side, where rather than say, if a student turns in work late, right, you wouldn't give them a zero. And a lot of people say that not giving a zero is not holding them accountable. Well, our counter to that would say, holding them accountable is just getting them to do the work in the first place.
0:45:53.4 AK: Making them do their job, right?
0:45:54.6 NC: Yeah, yeah. So it's like, okay, what is holding them more accountable than saying, "No, this, if we think this learning is important, this is something you have to do," it's not holding you accountable just to say, "Okay, you can skip that one and move on, right?" Take the zero and move on. No, we think it's so important that you actually need to learn this. So it's not an option for you to not do it.
0:46:11.1 NC: In the same way that I think on the behavior side, I think it's not accountability just to say like, "Oh, we're just gonna push you through this system now that kind of alienates, isolates, puts you in proximity to the legal system, et cetera, et cetera," just because we don't wanna deal with you. I can't imagine a more, holding students more accountable than you mentioned in the piece, say writing and reflecting on the things that they had done.
0:46:36.2 AK: In the think tank. Yeah, in the think tank, right?
0:46:39.2 NC: Yeah, in the think tank and internalizing, and then the making amends and reparations and talking to the adults, the students, your peers that you're having beef and issues with. And then like, that's the whole issue of restoration is actually overcoming those barriers and those obstacles, reflecting on that behavior so that you don't engage in it in those negative things again. And then building relationships with people to ensure that it doesn't happen in the future. Like that to me, is true accountability, not a particular punishment or following a particular system because it makes adults or outsiders feel good.
0:47:11.0 NC: And you had mentioned that's where a lot of those criticisms come from as well is that I think there definitely is back to those sort of racialized notions of crime and punishment and crime and criminality of who gets punished and who gets entered into the criminal justice system. When you have a majority non-White school like Roosevelt take those community issues into their own hands and say like, "We're not gonna feed our kids into that system anymore. We're gonna try something different." Then people in the vast majority White suburbs then say, "Oh, well, that's not accountability. You're not punishing those students. You're not doing those things." And then you turn around and look at what their White high schools look like. And you say, "Well, how many arrests do you have? How many of those, right? What is the racialized policing look like in your context?" And you say, oh yeah, well, it's the shoe's on the other foot now. And now you don't wanna reflect on your own stuff. So I think that is super interesting, too. I think to kind of transition here, I wanna know you had told me originally that the original draft was over 10,000 words and had to be whittled down to about half of that which is 10 pages with the wonderful photography that you're able to get here, too.
0:48:22.7 AK: Yeah. Mike is a great photographer. I could imagine reading this as-Wait, his kid, Mike, the photographer, his kid went to Roosevelt. So he was like, "Yeah, it's old homely." So, but yeah, years ago.
0:48:34.8 NC: I love it. No, that's... It's just, it's again...
0:48:37.8 AK: It's community, man.
0:48:39.9 NC: It's community, that's it, right? Like you have a buy and you have an interest. You don't wanna see those kids entered into a system that's gonna treat them racially different than anyone else.
0:48:49.9 AK: 10,000, right?
0:48:50.7 NC: Yes, to return to the word count here, I wanna know what got left of the cutting room floor. What would you have included in the cop's a cut that didn't make it into the, in these Times piece? Well, there was a lot of criticism, thoughtful criticism of our governor, what's her name? A lot of very specific Iowa stuff and the specific pressures that, not just Iowa teachers and not just Iowa kids, but my God, our healthcare system, right? And the punishing, I could not make a point of how irresponsible Governor Kim Reynolds was during the COVID crisis. The two, in school, right? Punitive actions taken toward communities of color that are disproportionately impacted with her anti-masking mandate, kids with disabilities and medically fragile children. It's policy violence is what you call it, meting out this policy violence against anti-trans. There was some of that in there. I talked to the kids and the teachers about what happens on the Hill. And that does filter down to them. They do know...
0:50:01.5 NC: What were they saying? I wanna, what were their comments like?
0:50:03.1 AK: I mean, when I was talking to their sort of workers, they're like, "Well, who cares who plays basketball? Let's just play." It's like, we're writers, right? It's like, who cares? This anti-trans bill that was signed with such glee as these kids were trying to make it through another day of school, it filters down because it comes through the adults, it comes through every aspect of life. And not to take away from, I pointed out some of the direct racist policies, the de facto redlining bill through anti-section eight housing and doing like giving agency to landlords to refuse public housing vouchers. That impacts the community and the rural community, by the way. I see grandma out on the street, but anyway, so that policy violence, that attack of students, that direct attack that Reynolds did, like in the wake of the young boy, 15-year-old Lopez, it took her a week to respond to that shooting when that young boy was murdered out front of East. Took her a week to respond to that. And I pointed that out in the piece was that, and she didn't even respond to it except when she was giving a bunch of American Rescue Plan Act taxpayer, US funded Democrat bought and paid for funds to Des Moines airport when some sentient reporter said, "Hey, any comment on that shooting?" "Oh, our schools are failing our kids." You know what Kim?
0:51:46.3 AK: And so a lot of that didn't make it into it because that, I don't care what you say, that impacts it. It rolls down literal hill. So it was a lot of this nonsense policy violence. It's not nonsense, it has real world impact. And that was crammed into a very small section that I had to edit it out that I will be happy to share. But a lot of it, a lot of statistics. So national statistics about, after Columbine, we didn't have cops in schools really until after Columbine. And so what have we seen? Statistically, kids are getting murdered left, right and center, right at school. And it's not typically by a bunch of young Black kids. It's a bunch of young White kids with access to guns and the governor sat at the desk, happily signing a second amendment restoration bill, right? So it's like, so a lot of these things I tried to pull out of, and so this goes back to that Iowa is sort of first in the nation status, which is still kind of like, would be the best thing for that to go away. That was kind of couched in that. It's like, "Do you see the issues that they are targeting and that are targeting communities of color in Iowa that figures into education?"
0:53:06.5 NC: It just, it does and the voucher bills. So a lot of that made it, and then a lot of very specific data, because I love me some data about how disproportionately girls, Black girls, first and foremost, but girls specifically who are being arrested in school. And again, I mentioned that I was a 16-year-old that ended up in a lock facility. I was one of those kids who ended up in the system, and I'm a White kid from a teeny tiny farming community.
0:53:41.3 NC: You did mention in the piece that an ACLU report found that Black girls in Iowa were nine times more likely than White girls to be arrested...
0:53:49.1 AK: Yeah, do you know that Iowa outflanks a lot of the world in jailing not only kids, but in jailing people in general?
0:54:00.4 NC: I had no idea.
0:54:02.3 AK: Proportionally. Yeah, oh, God! Stats, right? So, but that all goes back to, again, sort of my interest in Iowa is that Iowa is an unfortunate outlier in the fact that, we like to talk about farms and farmers, but we have more inmates than farmers, right? We have more prisons being built. So there was a lot of sort of backgrounding going on. There was a lot of attention, because I went into this as a young girl who had gone through, who had been actually cuffed and thrown into a cop car and terrified and arrested for DUI at 16. I don't have any problem sharing that. The disproportionate way that we as girls are impacted, and to see it play out in Des Moines, I'm like, "What in that?" It was like 200 some percent jump over this period of time. A lot of that. So that was, my original intent was to examine how it impacted girls, just sort of spread out there. So a lot of that was cut just because it became a different story, a more broadly, more broad narrative. So a lot of that. And then just a lot of real legislative policy nerd type stuff that was being done in Iowa specifically.
0:55:18.1 NC: All that builds the... It builds that important context that we got to a little bit at the beginning. People just kind of understand holistically, right? This situation in Iowa, where you have this GOP trifecta, you have this demographic shift of a largely aging, rural, Republican population mixed with a huge growing, but increasingly compact in the sense of geography, or compact, urban, non-White, largely liberal population, a much younger population, too. So I think I take a lot of solace in the fact too, that there's gonna be generations of people coming out of schools like Roosevelt and all the Des Moines high schools. And as those programs scaffold down into the middle school and elementary school level, who then are gonna go out into the world and think that the restorative practices are the norm and that policing in schools is not. And so they're gonna be the people to lead the change in the future too. I mean, I don't know, we don't have time to go into Lyric Sellers, but she might have to be someone that we talked to.
0:56:24.0 AK: You should talk to her, yeah.
0:56:24.1 NC: That we have to talk to. No, yeah, yeah, yeah. Because she is one of those activists who kind of got the ball rolling on this. And my understanding now as a college student is still engaged firmly in that work.
0:56:35.2 AK: ISU is doing some great work there, too. So, I mean, anyway, but where she's going to school.
0:56:42.6 NC: Yes, I think, yeah, like there's just a generation of young Iowans who are excited and enthusiastic and engaged in doing... And angry.
0:56:46.9 AK: And angry. And angry. And justifiably angry. I'm sorry, but you get to be justifiably, I mean, that is okay. Use that.
0:56:55.0 NC: So we're seeing then, like we are caught in the tension between these things of like an aging, older, wider demographic population who has control of the political reins of the state and have a lot of outsized influence compared to this huge growing younger, more liberal in their social views, more tolerant of LGBTQ peers and other people, more tolerant and more aware of the disproportionate impacts of all these different ideas and systems. So I guess I take solace in the fact then that like they are leading the charge here in taking control of their own community restoration and then in the process of that, building a model for what students are going to expect to see when their own kids go to school, a model that they'll expect to see in the rest of the world. And they can prove that to the rest of Iowa, for the rest of the country and become a model for what that looks like.
0:57:57.6 AK: I think so, but I will push back on that one. They shouldn't have to have that job.
0:58:06.6 NC: Absolutely.
0:58:06.9 AK: They should not have to have that job, especially young Black girls, young Black folks. They shouldn't have to try to bring all the rest of us along. And I'm afraid. I'm afraid they're gonna leave, right? Why are we staying? They're passing again, this policy violence. Why are they gonna stay? Why are they gonna stay? And so it should not be on them. It makes me nuts because it's like, they shouldn't have to be the ones that have to do this. So we need transparent, almost White folks like us who are from Iowa, who have a vested interest to truly just own our privilege and understand it's not their job. How can we help? How can we help? How can I help you? Is it me shutting up and listening to you? Yes, fine. I will do that. Can I tell your story? Because I have a platform, because I'm a White lady, old and grizzled as I am. Yes, I will do that, right?
0:59:02.4 NC: Kudos to the adults in these systems who are leading the charge and kind of taking that model. And then shame on the political leaders who are actively trying to sabotage those movements as well, certainly.
0:59:14.9 AK: And it's the people in positions of power that have to speak out. We need the White folks in state government to start using their platform in a more forceful way. And you can't fight crazy with being quiet.
0:59:32.8 NC: To kind of wrap things up here, I had asked you to think about a part of the piece that you maybe found the most compelling or that exemplified that work the most, and have you read it in your own words. And maybe we can explain a little bit why that is. And that could probably wrap us up on a bit of a high note here. Would you mind taking a look at that?
0:59:55.4 AK: I would be interested in what stuck out to you. But I think that when I was speaking to Ahmed, Mr. Musa, he said, we can try to undo the harm, but sometimes there's more to it. Just a simple conversation won't get over it. It might take years, it might take days or weeks. But Mr. Musa adds, if we can come to an agreement where kids can say, "Hey, this happened, we're gonna move on from it. We don't have to even speak to each other, but we can finish out the school year and both of us will be successful in our own ways." He told me that's the winner. And that's that subtle sort of space. It's like, this doesn't have to look like everybody shakes hand and walks away friends.
1:00:35.7 AK: That's not what this is about. This is about getting kids through the day. And it's about providing wraparound services. Do they have food? Do they have a home? And that's all part of this. So, I mean, that really stuck out to me because it's very sort of emblematic. It's that tiny victory that adds up over time. And that's not comfortable for a lot of people because they wanna see big splashy change. But I just thought it was so like, "Yeah, this getting a kid through a day sometime is the best possible outcome because then there's a chance at there being a next day, right?" And so I think that really stuck out to me. Well, I think one of the other things too that was interesting to me and we haven't spoken about was Yonathan had such a spark when we talked about history.
1:01:27.7 NC: I did highlight that. That to me was incredible. I think especially in the... I'll try to find it and try to emphasize it here. Because I think what's incredible about that is if we think, "Yeah, here you go." You say, I asked Yonathan who was a student who was in the think tank and you had said that he had been arrested shortly after.
1:01:45.9 AK: He actually wasn't... Yeah, he wasn't in the think tank. He actually just got arrested. Yeah.
1:01:53.8 NC: Oh gosh, okay. Yeah. Well, yeah, you say, I asked Yonathan what his favorite subject is. He answers immediately, history. He loves learning about World War II and Vietnam, Korea. He thinks his maternal grandfather served in World War II and he says, uncles fought in other wars. And what I had put here, I said, here is a subject that is underrated and underrepresented in the system. Again, let's put it in a policy focus here. CRT, right? Yeah. Oh my God. It's part of the laws against so-called divisive concepts, but then also the bigger pushes that our governor has been really proud of in STEM. And the history is not a part of building that context for STEM. And yet here is a student who is at the margins of the system, who is involved in the legal system here, too. And here he says, this is the thing that he enjoys and that anchors him. He might not get to take a history class in the course of his day. I don't know what the curricular requirements are, but there's probably only a couple of years meant to do that. And then it might be math and science and all those other kinds of things, too, that we're emphasizing. But yeah, that was a shocker to me.
1:03:00.7 AK: It was that spark, right? But the thing was, is that his entire... I mean, he was great to let me sit there and talk with him, but man, I got the feeling he would have talked about that all day if they would have let me stay there. But that's the thing. It's like, what's your favorite subject? History, immediately, straight away. But that to me was great. It's like, you don't expect to, so what do people expect when they walk into a kid who's been arrested for having knives and cannabis cart, like, "Oh, some punk." No, it's some kid that loves history.
1:03:33.2 NC: Right. The Korean war.
1:03:33.8 AK: So let's just set aside that he made... He's got some prices to pay. He did some stuff that's illegal, but that doesn't discount from the fact that it's like, there's more to it than that.
1:03:47.9 NC: Right. And there's more to him.
1:03:52.3 AK: I think, yeah, there's more to all those kids, right?
1:03:53.3 NC: All right, well, the piece is the city that kicked cops out of schools and tried restorative practices instead, the author, Andy Kopsa. Thank you so much for joining me today, Andy. Thanks for letting me rant, and we could probably go on, but, oh.
1:04:05.1 NC: Anytime. Let, yeah, we'll do the B side later. All right, thanks, Andy.
1:04:12.0 NC: Thank you again for listening to Human Restoration Project's podcast. I hope that this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause, and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.
In These Times: The City That Kicked Cops Out of Schools and Tried Restorative Practices Instead
ACLU of Iowa: Advocating for Police-Free Schools Toolkit