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Committee split on fate of SROs in Monona Grove schools

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Monona Grove

After more than two decades, the SRO program at Monona Grove schools could be discontinued this year.

A committee formed to guide a decision on whether to continue with school resource officers (SRO) in the Monona Grove School District has yet to reach a uniform conclusion.

Committee members include Superintendent Dan Olson, Monona Grove High School Principal Mitchal McGrath, Cottage Grove School Principal Danyelle Wright, Glacial Drumlin Associate Principal James Kamoku, Student Services and Equity Coordinator Shelby Steel, and Administrative Student Services Assistant Brianna Nytes.

Although a final decision on whether or not to keep SROs in district schools will ultimately fall on the school board, committee members were directed to conduct research on the program and, based on their findings, provide a recommendation to school board members prior to the board’s final vote on Aug. 11.

The group began the research and evaluation process in February, and all six committee members presented their findings to the school board July 14.

FindingsCommittee members said a survey taken by 956 Monona Grove students in grades 6-12 showed that students have mainly positive or neutral thoughts on the SRO program.

Data presented to the school board showed that some respondents did not answer every question.

Of those 956 total respondents, the district received 941 answers to the question of whether students had a positive relationship with SROs. 474 (49.6%) students described their relationship with the district’s SROs as “positive,” 444 (46.4%) answered “neutral,” and 23 (2.4%) answered “negative,” with 1.6% not responding.

Data showed a more negative outlook on the SRO program at the high school level, with just over 60% of the “negative” response category coming from Monona Grove High School students.

Another survey question asked students if having a resource officer makes them feel safer at school. 496 students said “yes,” 369 said “undecided/not sure,” and 80 said “no.”

82% of students who said they feel safer with SROs in the buildings, also identified themselves as white. 13% of responding students of color answered the same way.

When district families and community members were surveyed, they answered similarly.

Out of 535 community respondents, more than half, 284, said they would describe the relationship between SROs and the district community as “positive.” 194 respondents answered “neutral,” and 30 answered “negative.”

When asked if they feel that the SRO program makes the school environment safer, 348 people, more than 60%, said “yes,” 93 said “undecided/not sure,” and 90 said “no.”

Broken down by municipality, the data indicated Monona residents as having a more negative view on the SRO program when compared to respondents from Cottage Grove.

More than half, 42, of community respondents who described their relationship with SROs as “negative” also identified themselves as Monona residents.

Committee members also gathered input from Monona Grove teachers through focus groups.

The committee reported that school staff said the SRO program, “does align with our mission of safety,” but that staff are, “not sure if SROs are providing a safe environment, or even presenting the perception of safety, for students from marginalized communities.”

According to committee members, participating school staff said the SRO program will need to undergo several modifications if the board decides to continue it.

Staff suggested eliminating drug sweeps and creating more mental health and equity training for SROs.

During the presentation, Steel said that, following an analysis that included a look at daily log books kept by the district’s current SROs, the officers have a disproportionately higher contact rate with students of color and students with disabilities than they do with white, able-bodied students.

“At Monona Grove, from the daily logs and other things, it comes out pretty strongly that our students of color and our students with disabilities are more likely to encounter interactions with our SRO,” Steel said.

Split decisionDespite months of data collection and analysis, committee members were split last Wednesday when providing school board members a recommendation on whether to continue or discontinue the program.

McGrath and Kamoku said they recommend the board vote to keep the SRO program, Wright indicated she’s still unsure, and both Steel and Nytes said they recommend the board vote to discontinue the program.

Olson did not indicate an immediate preference, saying “there’s not, in my mind, a right or wrong answer here.”

McGarth described the potential of losing the high school’s SRO as “concerning.”

He said one of his concerns would be, “the impact [it] would have on our ability to respond effectively to major events or crises.”

McGrath also said calling in a patrol officer for emergencies at the high school would not be as effective as having an already-familiar SRO on site.

Wright said she feels the district needs more time before making a decision.

“I don’t think we’re at a point where... we can either remove or keep [the SROs]. We probably need to continue working through this,” Wright said.

She said she believes the district needs to “review our own policies, our own behavior matrix... we need to look at when we call the police, why we call the police, and we need to drill down those data points,” before a final decision is made.

Steel said she recommends board members vote to eliminate the program.

“Some of the data and information that… really stuck out to me through this process was, I didn’t see any evidence to show that the [SRO] program is a deterrent to unsafe behaviors,” said Steel. “Staff... are concerned that having an SRO program doesn’t align with our equity work... so that’s a real concern that we need to evaluate going forward.”

Steel said her inclination toward discontinuing the SRO program also stems from evidence suggesting the program is not actively improving its relationships with students and community members of color.

“Our relationship between the police force and communities of color isn’t necessarily improving with an SRO,” she said. “We didn’t see overwhelming evidence of an impact of more students of color reaching out and seeking assistance from that program.”

The school board is set to take an official vote on the topic at its Aug. 11 meeting.

If board members vote to keep the program, Olson said the district will review and revise its SRO policies and develop more education and training for the officers.

If it’s discontinued, Olson said district staff will need to “redefine roles and responsibilities for staff and administrators.”

“I think the answer is that we can make either work, but the question is, what route do we take, and how do we make that decision,” said Olson.

The Monona Grove School District has had resource officers in school buildings for the last 26 years.

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