In the wake of the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, “defund the police” has become a national rallying cry. We wrote about it just a couple of weeks ago. Much of the conversation has been centered around policing in cities and communities, but from it launched a broader examination of another area of police work: School Resource Officers (SROs). According to the National Association of School Resource Officers, an SRO is “a career law enforcement officer with sworn authority who is deployed by an employing police department or agency in a community-oriented policing assignment to work in collaboration with one or more schools.” They are meant to fill the roles of “educator (i.e. guest lecturer), informal counselor/mentor, and law enforcement officer.”
Both Champaign and Urbana school districts employ SROs. The subject was front and center recently, as Urbana School District and the City of Urbana approved the addition of a second SRO for the district. This means the middle school and high school would each have a full-time officer. The addition came on the heels of a well-publicized fight in the halls of Urbana High School last year, and meant that the school district would devote more than $300,000 to pay for the presence of SROs. Many parents and community members expressed concern over the amount of money; money that could be used for other social services, and a lack of clear guidelines for how the SROs would be involved in school discipline.
SROs have been around since the 1950s, with the initial goal of developing relationships between youth in the community and police. In the late 90s, after the shooting at Columbine High School, the purpose began to shift more towards a security measure. In Urbana, the motivation was clearly to aid in discipline.
School districts all over the nation have already severed contracts with their local police, ending SRO programs in their schools, most notably Minneapolis where George Floyd was killed.
Champaign Unit 4 Schools currently have an SRO at each high school and middle school. Just last week, the school board passed a resolution declaring racism a public health issue. While it did not call for the removal of SROs, the resolution states it:
Directs the Superintendent to publish student rights and responsibilities on every campus where School Resource Officers (SRO) are assigned and to increase training for teachers, principals, and administrators on their responsibilities to provide fair and equitable discipline that centers the physical and mental health of all students and staff
Requests that a discussion that centers the voices of a representative group of students, which also includes the Chief of Police, and other district stakeholders, accompany any SRO contract presented to the Board to make informed decisions on the role of armed police officers in our schools.
What can’t be ignored is Black students are disciplined at higher rates than their white peers. The presence of SROs has the potential to escalate situations, leading to arrest(s), ultimately feeding into the school-to-prison pipeline.
Just as we defined a need to divert funding from local police departments to social services, we believe that a similar approach should be applied to our school districts. We believe more resources should be devoted to social workers, school psychologists, and mental health professionals specifically trained in trauma-informed solutions to disciplinary issues to manage what SROs are employed to do (as SROs are unqualified to actually manage these areas). It is problematic to have an armed officer on school property, especially considering the disturbing and at times deadly interactions we’ve witnessed between law enforcement and the Black community.
We reached out to local school board members and superintendents to get their thoughts on this issue, as they are positioned to execute decisions about SROs in our schools.Here is what we asked:
Specifically with regards to School Resource Officers, do you believe that our public schools should employ armed officers under contract from our local police departments or otherwise? If the answer is yes, what is your primary rationale? If the answer is no, why not? If the answer is undecided, please qualify that in a way that justifies it.
We sent the initial query on June 19th, asking for a response by 5 p.m. on June 22nd, which we later extended to 5 p.m. on June 24th.
Responses from our elected officials are below.
CHAMPAIGN UNIT 4 SCHOOLS
Superintendent Susan Zola: UNDECIDED
As you know the Champaign School District has had SRO officials for many years at both the middle and high schools. Every other year, parents are surveyed to secure ongoing feedback on the School Resource Program. Given the current reality of our nation and the concern regarding use of force by police officers, it would be a good time to open up the conversation on the role of School Resource Officers in our schools. I look forward to having the conversation and securing more feedback from board members, school staff, students and parents.
- Amy Armstrong, Board President: UNDECIDED
The SRO program has been in place since 2006; however, we have not had data from our students and parents since May 2017, which at that time showed overwhelming support from parent surveys and student focus groups. I look forward to having a public conversation once COVID restrictions allow for broader discussion. Critical decisions like this that have an impact and are of interest to the community at large behoove me to receive input from students, staff, parents, and the communities we serve before forming an opinion. Just six months ago, some parents wanted more SROs, metal detectors, and clear backpacks after a series of events at the high schools. I must weigh multiple voices as well as my fellow board member’s opinions before considering action to continue or end SROs.
- Gianina Baker: DID NOT RESPOND
- Bruce Brown: UNDECIDED
I’m not beholden to police serving in our buildings. Given the level of violence seen in our buildings amongst our students in recent years, it’s absolutely necessary there be trained professionals present to protect, disarm, and even deescalate such altercations, beit police or another licensed entity that can perform the same function/service to keep our teachers, staff and students out of harm’s way. Long before George Floyd’s murder, there was an incident during the school year involving an SRO that a number of us found questionable, and I knew then we’d need to renegotiate the parameters of their presence & function before we renewed their contract. It’s my understanding that not just any officer can serve as an SRO, and that candidates must possess a certain temperament, a level of conscientiousness, and meet cultural competency requirements because of the climate they’ll work in within our buildings. This highly selective process, I believe, helps protect our buildings from unethical, trigger- or force-happy individuals from interacting with our students and staff.
- Chris Kloeppel: UNDECIDED
I believe that whether or not to remove the SROs from our schools warrants a new conversation with the community at large, a conversation that hasn’t been had in a few years. I will, however, say I’m 100% in support of changing things up. What that looks like I feel needs to involve other perspectives and opinions than just mine or my fellow board members.
- Kathy Shannon: UNDECIDED
I cannot in good conscience make this decision without recent feedback from our Black community, which is at greatest risk for both over-policing and under-policing. In the past, parents and students overwhelmingly supported the SRO program, but the most recent feedback was solicited in school year 2016-17. That presentation can be found here.
There were surveys of all parents and focus groups with selected students. Large majorities of all groups in general, and of Black parents in particular, wanted to continue the program at that time, but a lot has changed since then. The Board of Education must hear from parents, students, and educators, particularly from the most vulnerable groups, before we decide on the future of the SRO program.
- Elizabeth Sotiropoulos: NO
I don’t question that SROs make some students, teachers, and staff feel safer at school. I won’t minimize the positive interactions that some students have had with SROs at their school, nor will I discount the role that SROs have played in breaking up some violent situations in our schools.
However, anecdotal evidence and individual stories are not enough to prove that an entire system is working for every member of our Unit 4 school system.
Peer-reviewed studies show that SROs aren’t systematically effective at preventing violence in schools. But their presence does lead to higher rates of discipline among Black, Brown, and working class students. Other institutions that serve the public, like hospitals and libraries, don’t typically have police officers in regular, permanent roles on their premises. They have figured out a system that protects all people they serve – why, then, wouldn’t our schools strive to do the same?
SROs in both Champaign and Urbana school districts are hired as contractors to uphold criminal law, among other responsibilities. But which criminal laws are these officers enforcing? We aren’t holding them accountable — we’ve agreed to provide them with an air-conditioned office and telephone (for business purposes, as stated in their contracts) and we’ve also agreed to give them access to our classrooms.
Our police system, both locally and nationally, is in dire need of reform. We have watched police officers injure and murder citizens, especially Black- and Brown-bodied citizens. It is abundantly clear that, as a system, police do not serve and protect all people equally. So how can we trust that SROs — who are armed police officers contracted to work in our schools with hardly any additional training – are protecting all of our students? How are they making our schools and communities more just? How can we justify paying tax dollars for police presence when we do not measure their effectiveness and when they disproportionately harm our most marginalized and vulnerable students?
The Unit 4 District Needs Assessment, conducted this past school year, shows that the community wants to replace SROs with a better system of restorative justice. We can, and we must, develop a new system of justice and discipline that teaches students conflict resolution, emotional regulation, strong communication and self-advocacy skills. Our students, families, and staff absolutely deserve to feel safe at school, and while SROs may help some of these people feel safer at school, I will continue to fight for a system that honors every person’s right to feel safe, protected, and welcome in Unit 4 schools.
- Heather Vasquez: UNDECIDED
I’m aiming to consider more than just one perspective, so right how I don’t have a definitive answer. Last week, I had the chance to speak with 6 students from Central HS, all of whom shared they didn’t have bad impressions of the SRO, and most who knew the campus SRO expressed they felt the SRO was there to maintain safety and stop fights. A few told me they believed more than a few Central students consider the SRO as someone they can talk to and find him accessible.
When I think about the question of SROs on our campus’, among the reasons I am considering is – while some students are left feeling safer with SROs in the building, I want to learn more about the students who could be left feeling “less safe”. As a board member, we are responsible to all of these students. I would also like to learn from Chief Cobb if there could be plans for additional social justice and/or bias awareness training for police officers, what they are planning, and how quickly plans could be put into place.
I’m looking forward to a robust discussion with the Board and hearing from the community as well. I am grateful for all the email communications we have received so far and I thank everyone for reaching out.
URBANA SCHOOL DISTRICT
Superintendent Jennifer Ivory-Tatum: DID NOT RESPOND
- John Dimit, Board President: YES
The Urbana School District has had a single resource officer for over 28 years, originally funded by the City and shared by all schools, primarily UMS and UHS. The SRO presence was strongly supported by all 4 Superintendents during those 28 years, actually all 4 indicated how helpful the SRO was to maintaining a safe and nurturing environment on our secondary campuses. In 2018, the Board allocated an additional $1.2 million on increased staffing dedicated to social/emotional learning efforts, extensively increasing our social worker, clinical professionals, counseling type of staffing, After a significant incident in February 2019, the administration requested additional support, leading to a full time SRO at both UHS and UMS. At this higher level of staffing, the City requested District financial support. The Board spent the second half of 2019 fine tuning the proposed contract, listening to hours of testimony from those who supported the SRO and those opposed. The contract has several clauses that promote the ethics of community policing, restorative justice, and relationship building. The contract clearly identifies specialized training required of the SRO and supports extensive coordination with our social workers, student relations workers, clinical professionals, teachers and administrators. Most importantly, the contract was set for a 2 school year term, with an extensive evaluation after the first year. The contract was approved in December of 2019. I voted in favor of the contract and wish to see the contract through. The SRO for the high school was just hired before the Covid shutdown of the schools, impacting any ability to properly assess the effectiveness of the program. However, the officer at UMS has been there for a while and is very effective, well liked by the staff and all the students. I feel very strongly that if the job is done correctly, the SRO can become an effective representative of what ethical policing should become and the Board must provide the opportunity for successfully meeting this goal.
As I noted, during the fall of 2019, the Board heard hours and hours of oral testimony and read lots of written communication from both supporters and opposers. My vote was certainly influenced by the near universal support by parents from all demographics and all neighborhoods of the District, but it was really impacted by the testimony of many of our social workers and clinical professionals clearly stating that the presence of the SRO assisted them to be much more effective at their jobs of enhancing the lives of all of our students.
- Brenda Carter: DID NOT RESPOND
- Tori Exum: DID NOT RESPOND
- Ruth Ann Fisher: DID NOT RESPOND
- Anne Hall: NO
Urbana School District 116 has maintained part-time school resource officers since the 1990s, provided by the city. Last year, the city of Urbana proposed a new contract for full-time police officers in Urbana secondary schools that shifted much of the cost to the school district. This proposal then raised the question to the board of whether we wanted to have police in our schools at all. To gain a better perspective on current research and data on SRO programs, I read many studies on the subject, including those sent to me by constituents who were both for and against police in the schools. Our district has already increased the number of support staff in our secondary schools in order to address student behavior issues. It is my hope that our efforts will show improved student learning without the need to use additional district resources toward a full-time police presence.
After several robust, public debates involving the entire community during board meetings in both November and December 2019, the board took its final votes on the matter in December of 2019. The majority of the board voted in favor of increasing police presence as a result of hearing evidence presented to them by many of our district’s licensed counselors, social workers, and other support staff, as well as various members of the community who wanted to provide the schools this kind of support. I voted against adding two full-time SROs at our middle and high schools as I do not believe it is the best way to address student discipline and learning outcomes. While I respect and support the board’s decision, I believe that it is still to be determined whether keeping the full-time SROs has been beneficial to the district’s mission of providing a safe learning environment for Urbana students. I have asked that we carefully adhere to the contract’s provision to assess the program after one year to measure its success or failure, and then be willing to review the agreement without bias based on the data’s results.
- Peggy Patten: NO
The Urbana School Board discussed the increased use of SROs in our middle & high school during several open meetings of the Board last fall. At each of our meetings I was clear in my opposition to hiring two full time SROs for the District, one to be placed in our high school & one to be placed at our middle school. For 26 years the Urbana School District (USD116) had employed one ½ time SRO split between the middle & high school with the cost borne by the City of Urbana. That partnership was a beneficial one & the climate in our schools was largely positive. I attribute the positive climate to the investments in our professional educators—our teachers, counselors & social workers—as well as investments in effective administrators & systems of support.
The fact that we have had a positive climate in USD without relying on armed police officers as many other Districts do, has been for me a source of pride. We know what contributes to a positive school climate. But we took our eyes off that prize during the previous year when we dismantled systems of support & removed key personnel without proper planning. That misguided approach contributed to tumult in our high school & middle school. That tumult, which I believe could have been prevented, led to a desire to dramatically increase the presence of SROs in USD, going from one ½ time SRO paid by the City to employing two fulltime SROs paid for by the District.
As I said in the public meetings of the Urbana School Board last fall, the focus on increasing the number of armed police officers—SROs— to improve safety is misdirected. What contributes to safety in our schools is having enough teachers, counselors & social workers so class sizes & case sizes are manageable. The $320,000 we are committing annually for two fulltime SROs are dollars unavailable for these critical education personnel.
Community violence, including easy access to guns, has, sadly, been with us for many years. I believe it is effective relationships between students & educational professionals that create the kind of safe zone where community violence doesn’t spill over into our schools. Our decades-long experience in USD was a testament to that.
The Urbana School Board vote to hire two SROs (one for UHS & one for UMS) passed by a 4-2 margin last December, with one member absent. I hope we will revisit the issue again this fall as the reality of a budget shortfall resulting from the pandemic will need to be addressed. I am mindful, however, that there was strong support for hiring the SROs from our Central Office administration, building administrators, teachers, students & parents. I believe that the support for SROs arose from an overreaction to the chaotic events of the previous school year. I am also aware that the SROs who have served Urbana School District have done an outstanding job by all accounts.
Editor’s Note, 4:32 p.m.: We have updated Peggy Patten’s statement, as the original article did not have her complete statement. We also mispelled her last name by mistake. We apologize for these errors.
- Paul Poulosky: UNDECIDED (this is a portion of a longer response)
As currently implemented, the SRO isn’t an armed guard, but a member of the support staff in the building, facilitating the connection of students with needs to programs and services in the community that can help meet them. The SRO can focus on building personal relationships and trust with the students in the building over time and can be informed of potential issues before they happen. This additional investment then helps protect the original investment and helps its effectiveness.
We have incredible staff members at USD116 who have devoted their lives to improving student outcomes, and to public education as an essential tool to promote social justice. When making these important decisions, their words carry great weight with me.
So that brings us to today, which is a far different world than just 9 months ago. COVID-19, the economic fallout from the pandemic, as well as the increased awareness the BLM movement has brought to those of us with privilege means things are different. The state is promising level funding for the 2020-2021 school year, but no promises about the 2021-2022 fiscal year. The effects of the economic downturn on local property tax receipts, which is the majority of the district’s funding, is currently unknown.
Once the current contract ends, I would like to see if the district could perform the research to determine if the benefits the SRO currently provides could be performed more cost effectively by a professional who is not necessarily a police officer, and would not be wearing a weapon. But I would want all of the appropriate stakeholders (administrators, students, parents, teachers, support staff, UPD) to weigh in on the matter and have input in planning if or how this could be done. The last time the district made a wholesale change in support structures done from the top down did not work out well. If any changes are to be made, it would be important that the decisions be informed with input from our stakeholders, with careful planning, and given sufficient time to prepare.
The Editorial Board is Seth Fein, Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.