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Urbana school resource officer proposal needs more voices

For the past two months, the Urbana community has been grappling with the proposed $321,000.00 annual expenditure by Urbana School DIstrict #116 to create a private police force for Urbana schools. As is often the case when schools are involved, arguments for and against this proposal have been impassioned, and our community has come out in force to voice concerns.

This School Resource Officer (SRO) increase is a controversial proposal. More than 200 community members signed petitions both for and against it, and we heard publicly from dozens more at several board and council meetings. There was a 4-3 split vote by the school board and continued discussion and debate at the city council on this proposal, ultimately leading to an amended version being sent back to the school board.

Now, Urbana school board member Peggy Patten is putting forth a counter-proposal at the board meeting on December 17th. Patten proposes limiting this to only one full-time SRO, highlighting the enormous expenditure this would require — dollars that could be spent more efficiently on increased social-emotional supports —which could possibly jeopardize the financial stability of Urbana schools.

Throughout this process, from the first public mention of this proposal on October 1st to 49 days later when it was voted through the school board, there have been calls for changes and more time, including from three board members; one even mentioning that this process has felt rushed, and that something this controversial would normally be sent to a committee. It is in this committee that we know this proposal will be strengthened with more protections for our students and families. Some specific concerns with the proposal that we would like to see still addressed:

  • Back in October, Eldress Melinda Carr brought up concerns as to how and when parents are involved when an SRO is questioning students. Section 7 of the proposal still leaves many instances where parents would not be notified.
  • Cunningham Township Supervisor Danielle Chynoweth called for a firewall between the school discipline records and the records of the police.
  • We also continue to put forth calls for better data collection so we can see if this increased officer presence has a measurable positive outcome for our schools (e.g., measurable decrease in bullying).
  • In some areas of the proposal, it clearly states “this shall be developed.” Why not have a committee develop these aspects before we vote?
  • We need to see clear language that acknowledges the evidence-based risk brought to students of color and students with disabilities when police are brought into schools, and the district’s plan to actively combat these risks in our district.This Board of Education recently passed their Resolution of Commitment to Racial Equity. Here’s a chance for meaningful commitment and action.

In speaking with many community members, we understand that there are positive experiences had with current officers. This is no doubt related to the overall positive culture in our Urbana Police Department. We appreciate the need for defining explicitly in this proposal the qualities of a successful SRO and the ways in which we evaluate the continued success of that SRO. In this way, administration could build a bridge and see more people coalescing around a stronger proposal.

For this amount of money (see the district’s budget breakdown below) and controversy, our Urbana students deserve more than 49 days of discussion. It’s important to note that no formal feedback from the schools, students, or community members was ever solicited by the district. Informal questioning without opportunity to remain anonymous was the only method reported to be used by administration and board members.

Budget Breakdown (values from the SRO proposal and USD 116 budget)

  • USD 116 total estimated ending fund balance (i.e. the amount available to spend in July 2020): $4,622,848.00
  • Annual Cost* of two SROs in two schools: $321,300.18
  • USD FY20 Social Worker Expenditure in ten schools: $789,510.00
  • Percentage of total available budget spent on SROs: 7%

* SRO cost includes: guns, gas masks, police vehicles, increased risk insurance premiums

When we hear from administrators that those opposed to the increase in SROs should have been present earlier in the 49 day process, an opportunity is lost. An opportunity exists here to show leadership in valuing, seeking, and reacting to stakeholder input. With more input, comes a stronger proposal.

If you find the increase of armed police in our schools concerning, even if that gun is holstered; if you believe that $321,000.00 annually could be spread over more methods of intervention rather than just police; if you remain concerned with the transparency and accountability in this proposal process; we urge you to attend the next school board meeting on December 17th at 7:30 p.m. We also encourage community members to contact the board (emails below) to urge them to support Patten’s counter-proposal of only adding one full-time SRO.

As a community, we can both appreciate our school administrators, publicly elected officials, and police while at the same time agree that the addition of these police to our schools needs a stronger proposal with more interactive, discussion-based stakeholder input.

Contact the Board:

Allison O’Dwyer is writing as a representative of 70 parents, educators, and community members. 

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