At the end of June, the boards of two of Wisconsin’s largest school districts – Madison and Milwaukee – voted to not renew contracts for school resource officers (SRO). According to reports, terminating the agreements was due to the increasing demands from the public to remove officers from schools.
These same decisions on whether or not to continue the SRO program are happening across the nation in school districts of all sizes. Much of this occurred after public outcry due to the deaths of Black people at the hands of police officers.
Locally, the Marshall School Board voted at its July 23 meeting to renew the SRO contract with the Marshall Police Department, with Officer Dayne Retallick taking over the position from Office Joe Nickel. However, there remain concerns about the impact the officer’s presence has on students of color.
The district has held two racial justice summits during this month, including one at the July 1 board committee of the whole meeting. The discussions stemmed from a petition started by two alumni who demanded the district take actions to combat racism. During the summits, students of color have talked about their experiences in the Marshall School District.
Middle school Spanish and bilingual services teacher Michael Jansen, who has been one of the facilitators for the racial justice summits, said there is still a sentiment among students of color that having an SRO in the building is uncomfortable.
“They understand the intentions is for school safety and to have really good policing practices,” he said. “I think it’s going to be incumbent on us to keep the listening sessions going and to gather more of that feedback.”
Furthermore, the teacher understands the need for school safety, but believes there are more proactive measures the district can take instead of hiring an SRO.
“There’s a feeling of safety that students need to feel before they can learn,” Jansen said. “If for whatever reason they don’t feel safe (with the SRO present) that can effect their learning environment.”
Staci Abrahamson asked if the presence of an SRO has decreased the number of disciplinary actions and what do the students of color feel about the SRO’s presence.
Grady said there has been a decrease in disciplinary actions in the past few years, but did not know if this was the result of the SRO as the reductions were a district goal. Additionally, the superintendent said the district needs to be having the conversations about how students of color are impacted by having an officer present in the schools.
Paul Wehking pointed out last year was the first time there was a more formal agreement for the SRO and more of an on-campus presence. The board vice president said the purpose of having the position was threefold – reduce and de-escalate problems that many times in the past resulted in the suspensions of students, expose students and the entire village to the positive experience of community policing, and deter catastrophic events involving students and staff from taking place.
“In my heart of hearts, if I thought this was the wrong thing for us, I certainly would not vote for it,” Wehking said. “But I just bring it back to … what has been our school-community experience and I would say again it’s been overwhelmingly positive. And if a student or parent comes in with experiences that might have a negative light on law enforcement, this is an opportunity for us to demonstrate that this is a positive thing.”
Board member Eric Armstrong suggested the new SRO receive training specifically in cultural sensitivity to better serve a more diverse population.
The board also:
• Approved hiring Eugene Syvrud as the new high school principal effective Aug. 4. He was chosen from 28 applicants for the position.
“Through experiences as a building leader, Eugene will bring his talents, dedication and passion to foster positive learning experiences and increase student successes for each student. Mr. Syvrud enjoys spending time with his two school-aged children and his wife also in education. In addition, he enjoys gardening and woodworking. Eugene is excited to join the high school team and looks forward to building relationships with Marshall’s students, staff, and families. Marshall Public Schools is pleased to welcome Mr. Eugene Syvrud to Marshall High School,” Grady wrote in a statement following the meeting.
• Approved purchasing a handicapped accessible van at a price not to exceed $36,000. This will be a cost savings to the district, which had been provided handicapped-accessible transport through Go Riteway.
• Approved 10-cent increases to the school nutrition meal prices. The 2020-2021 prices will be $2.95, $3.15 and $3.85.
• Offered contracts to Laura Grossman for head cross country coach and Sarah Rosewicz for assistant cross-country coach.
• Approved a high school student’s application to enroll in the Madison College Gateway Plan.