DeForest Area School District leaders met Monday evening for a two hour “retreat” to discuss the future of the school resource officer program, in a deep dive into student equity and long-term educational strategy.
Although school district administrators were meeting with members of the board, with expectation of a quorum of members, the agenda explicitly said “no action will be taken.” Instead, the proceedings involved a methodically guided discussion to identify expectations and concerns over the district’s police contract school resource officer program, or SRO, which assigns one member of the DeForest Area Police Department to a rotating three-year assignment to DeForest Area School District Buildings. The two elementary buildings outside the DeForest police jurisdiction, are not covered in the program, but are under the jurisdiction of the Dane County Sheriff’s Office.
District Superintendent Eric Runez prepped participants for the possible discussion ahead, saying, “it can be emotional or controversial,” but that it was a policy that even if properly working, needed to be reviewed as he described later: “this district has prided itself on being a continuous improvement district.”
It was the first time in roughly a year that such a meeting had taken place, due to the inconveniences and overwhelming issues of COVID-19, and many of the participants spoke of their delight in focusing on a non-virus-related school topic.
While many school districts have adopted such programs in more recent years, the DeForest Area School District has incorporated an SRO for over 20 years. The role of that officer has changed over the years and varies between schools, as administrators explained.
DeForest Area High School Associate Principal Doug Crowley told the group how he had been with the district for 13 years and had worked with five SROs over that time. Tasks have involved investigation, speaking to classes, crisis management, briefing staff on student issues outside the school that have the potential of being brought into the classroom, general youth outreach, and other tasks.
Middle School Principal Kurt Becker said that there the SRO tends to focus more on education and prevention in substance abuse issues, but also threat assessment, active threat training and drills with students, and also briefing staff.
At the elementary schools, Associate Principal Bill Huebsch said that the phrase “smaller students, smaller problems,” comes up, with SROs doing more “preventative” work in outreach, such as spending time with kids on the playground.
Giving a brief background, Runez explained how the program evolved from the D.A.R.E. drug prevention program and changed with school shootings such as in Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland. The role has since veered toward more focus on safety and “active threat” planning.
One specific way the SRO has helped the schools, according to Runez, has been in ensuring that federally mandated security measures have been met when they come up in annual review. Comparing the SRO priorities in DeForest Area School District to others and his own experience in Denver, Runez told the group, “There’s always that anti-drug element, but in some schools, I would say there is more of an anti-crime priority.”
One of the challenges that comes with bringing a police officer into a school, Runez explained is, “We deal with a lot of gray.” Whereas law enforcement tend to work in areas of black-and-white.
Going over citations issued in schools over the past year, Runez pointed to most of them being at the high school, and usually “disorderly conduct,” which although often used as a low-level catch-all in law enforcement, in schools it often relates to a fight between students.
Two questions that would bear asking, Runez said, is whether there are that many fights between students to explain that many citations, and if not, does that mean the SRO is being drawn into non-criminal behavioral issues? Another detail that was also missing from the data summary before the meeting was whether there is disproportionality of citations issued to minority students--if it appears non-white students are issued citations at a higher rate than white students for the same behavior.
“This is information we just haven’t been able to dive into,” said Runez.
The group then took down a list of all factors they could think of that they would like to consider involving future plans for an SRO, from educational opportunities in the classroom, to student comfort or discomfort around the officer, to public perception, to community collaboration, to equity issues and many more.
One particular concern that was aired in several forms was whether the district was asking more of an SRO than they should, such as being a resource to address mental health issues, or simply being a go-to answer for any lacking resource in the district.
When asked about principles they would like to drive decision making in this program, a highlighted and multiply-seconded concern was making sure that legal intervention would be only as a matter of last resort. A criticism of SRO programs that was discussed in the meeting was the “pipeline to prison” hazard, in which students with personal or behavioral issues are more likely to be in conflict with police as opposed to alternative intervention, leading to accumulating citations, leading to court records, spiraling to jail, fewer opportunities and prison.
On the other hand, the most common need that attendees were hoping to see addressed by an SRO, with increased school safety, was introduction of early positive relationships between law enforcement and students.
As promised, there were no hard decisions made at the conclusion of the meeting, but it was noted that the SRO contract with the DeForest Area Police Department is renewed on an annual basis, the next contract concluding in June.
With everything that had been shared over the two-and-a-half hour meeting, district administrators were asked to take that information and see about filling in the blanks of details and what options the district has that could be shared at a future Board of Education meeting.
“No hurry,” Runez clarified, with audible agreement from around the room.
“This is the first I’ve felt like a useful board member in months,” said one board member, to much agreement, comparing it to the past arguments over social distancing, hybrid programs, and all the other aspects of COVID prevention.