Education, Minnesota

The Disbandment of the Forest Lake Police Department and Student Resistance

I’m home sick from school today.  It is the first sick day that I have taken on a school day in my three-year career as a secondary teacher with Forest Lake Area Schools.  I threw up in a garbage can after 5th hour yesterday, so you know it’s legit!  But even in my sickly, sofa-ridden state, I cannot help but feel moved and inspired by what is taking place in the school and community in which I teach.

The events I refer to started back in January, when Forest Lake Mayor, Ben Winnick, first floated the idea of disbanding the Forest Lake Police Department.  To take its place, Winnick proposed a cost-saving measure that would switch the city’s law enforcement services to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, potentially saving the city more than $300,000 annually.  The switch would also cost 23 Forest Lake police officers their jobs.

The idea was met with strong resistance from the community—resistance that last week culminated in a flurry of emergency meetings in which dozens of Forest Lake community members (high school students included) aired their grievances about the proposal.  The final meeting took place Monday night, when the Forest Lake City Council voted 3-2 to approve the contract with Washington County Sheriff’s Office, effectively disbanding the police department of the city of Forest Lake.

 Resistance only escalated from there.  At 1:15 on Tuesday afternoon, as many as 1,000 students walked out of Forest Lake High School, and went on to march all the way to City Hall in a show of support for their police officers.  While Monday’s vote was an ominous one for FLPD supporters, the decision ultimately needs to be approved by Washington Country, lending the protesters hope that further action can still halt this unpopular decision from taking root in their community.

Forest Lake High School did not sanction the students’ actions.  Students who chose to walkout should have been marked with unexcused absences and will be responsible to make up whatever learning they missed.  In my opinion, that’s what gave this protest teeth. Student willingness to stand up for what they believe to be right, in spite of whatever consequences they might face from their school and/or parents, provides a powerful undercurrent to Tuesday’s actions.  Cancelled classes and signed parental permission forms would have turned Tuesday into less of a walkout and more of a field trip, and field trips usually don’t create social change.

What is more, it is not the school’s place to take a stance on this issue.  The school expressed its support for the free speech rights of its student body, and that was all that it should have done. Certainly every one of us educators has an opinion on the issue at hand, but as one of my students put it, regardless of what our own personal opinions may be, we live in a democracy, and on this issue, it appears that the people have spoken.

As a teacher, I could not feel more proud of the student leaders who are so effectively using their voices to stand up for what they believe in.  Even if their quest proves to be unsuccessful, I hope that this experience leaves them feeling empowered, and that it encourages them to continue to act as the agents of change that they are proving to be, in Forest Lake, in Minnesota, in Washington, and in the world.

Tomorrow I will return to work and rejoin the student body who, during a difficult stretch of the year, have reminded me how special it can be to teach high school students—guiding them as they find their voice and identity in the world.  More than anything else, that is what us teachers are hoping to cultivate, and in the case of many of yesterday’s class-ditchers, it appears that, to at least a certain degree, our school is succeeding.

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Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Forest Lake Area Schools or anyone else associated with the district.

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