Monona Grove High School’s school resource officer (SRO) will resume his position in the school following a Sept. 20 vote from the city council.
A renewal of the school district’s SRO program was approved by the school board on Aug. 11, after a year-long debate on whether police presence in schools is still a need for the district.
The Cottage Grove Village Board approved the agreement for the village’s SRO, Jessica Helgeland, five days later on Aug. 16, though Monona’s SRO, Luke Wunsch, had been waiting on the city council’s approval for more than a month.
Monona Police Chief Brian Chaney Austin said the high school had been relying on patrol services for the first two weeks of school in Wunsch’s absence.
He said Wunsch “was able to insert himself” in most of the patrol calls dispatched to the high school, but that having him physically present in the school during that time would likely have been more efficient.
The renewal, which will expire in 2024, passed 3-2 among city council members, with one alder absent. Alders Molly Grupe and Jennifer Kuhr voted against it.
“I’m diametrically and philosophically opposed to the concept and the position of an SRO,” Grupe said. “I’m extremely appreciative of the frank and challenging conversations I’ve had… but I don’t feel that I can, in good conscience, support this measure.”
Grupe, a special education teacher, cited a need to put kids first as part of her decision to vote no, saying she’s read research that indicates children of color are disproportionately impacted by resource officer programs.
“Like Alder Grupe, I have concerns about this relationship with the school district,” Kuhr said. “I understand that the school board worked diligently over the last year to try and address a lot of the concerns that have been raised by the community, but I don’t see that there have been any changes made to the relationship.”
“I’ve seen no evidence of any kind of built in evaluation period or any kind of protections for our officers who are being asked to intervene when they probably shouldn’t,” Kuhr continued. “I do think that we could do better.”
Though, City Council President Kathy Thomas, chair of the city’s public safety committee, said the agreement did change since the last time it was approved.
“They greatly changed the function of this particular officer who would be there,” Thomas said. “In the past, [the SRO] was for disciplinary reasons and other purposes and was used for what many people… declared was inappropriate.”
Chaney Austin said the new agreement gives the SRO a more nuanced role in the school’s disciplinary process.
As legal mandatory reporters, the district SRO’s will be required to intervene in situations of sexual assault or child abuse, the chief said.
He emphasized the ‘resource’ aspect of the officer’s role, indicating that their job will be just that: a resource and role model that students can lean on.
“It will likely be a rare occasion in which a physical custodial arrest will be made or citations are issued,” he said. “There are a series of mandates given by me to the SRO with respect to how he is to operate in the school.”
Alder Doug Wood said he was glad to see that change.
“Some of the changed language in the agreement on the duties of the school resource officer, moving the focus away from discipline and making it clear that the SRO is not the disciplinary arm of the district, is important,” said Wood.
The city will have the right to opt out of the agreement for any reason with 90 days’ notice, a provision that Alder Kristie Goforth said she finds comfort in.
“I feel that the 90-day withdrawal of contract is a great fail safe, and that gives me comfort,” she said. “I believe that Chief Chaney Austin is of the highest integrity and… I trust his judgment and believe he deserves a chance to lead our SRO program.”
Chaney Austin said his hope is that the police department “will continue to be there as a resource” in the school district for years to come.
The full SRO agreement can be found on the city council’s website, https://www.mymonona.com/127/City-Council, under the agendas and minutes tab.