Across the country, discussions are going on in many communities on whether to defund/move resources from police departments and perhaps remove resource officers from schools.
In La Crosse the topic of continuing a 27-year contract with the La Crosse Police Department for school resource officers was reviewed in several virtual meetings last month.
At issue is $250,000 for five officers, and the administration of the School District of La Crosse is expected to give its recommendation at the Nov. 16 board meeting.
The administration has had time to evaluate the points of the virtual meetings, which ended with the majority of speakers favoring ending the contract after this school year.
Move the money, they said, to initiatives such as groups and organizations led by Black students and students of color, more counselors or social workers, mental health resources, trauma-informed training and practices and more.
“Schools need resources, not resource officers,” said a student at the final meeting.
While we would not dispute that schools need resources for mental health and training programs, we would hesitate to abandon a program that has been serving the schools and students for so long.
And we would hesitate making a decision to abandon SROs at a time when schools are not in session and meetings are virtual with limited attendance.
Schools will be back in session and meetings will be held in due time when the pandemic is under control, and at that time more public discussion could be held while officers remain in their important roles at schools.
What do the resources officers do? La Crosse Police Chief Shawn Kudron provided insight at one of the meetings while saying the department’s SROs “have been somewhat vilified, in terms of what they do and who they are.”
“We’d like to specifically look at what our program’s about. What our officers are about, what they are doing, and what this 27-year relationship has meant with the school district.”
When he was an SRO at a middle school, Kudron said he welcomed students when they arrived and saw them as they left. He also worked with kids struggling in school or at home, built relationships with students, parents and school staff, served as a role model, oversaw students in the juvenile system, enforced truancy issues and occasionally broke up fights. The program also provides a 13-week program teaching middle schoolers skills such as goal-setting, conflict resolution, resiliency and refusal.
In the 2018-19 school year, the SRO at Central High School experienced 280 calls for service, outside of truancy, according to police captain Jason Melby. Nine of those calls resulted in a criminal charge being filed, and 40 citations were issued. More than 200 of the calls would be sent to a typical street officer.
This is a program with a long track record of effectiveness, and it should be separated from national debates and racial unrest sparking questions of what’s best for other communities. La Crosse must evaluate its own program, and school administrators must look ahead for when students return to the classes and hallways.
At the final virtual meeting, the only person who spoke in favor of keeping the program said her children feel safe with the officers in school, after her son was attacked, once sending him to the emergency room.
Is the school community better off with SROs? We haven’t heard anything that says otherwise. A longtime successful program in La Crosse should continue, at least until there is a full discussion and review.