The national debate about how to reimagine policing has so many points of entry — so many necessary issues to be addressed — that it is perhaps understandable that some people feel overwhelmed. But that is no excuse for inaction. In communities across this country, activist groups were framing issues and making demands long before the horrific death in Minneapolis police custody of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, inspired urgent protests against police brutality and racial injustice. That’s certainly true in Madison, where community members have for years challenged the practice of stationing police officers in the city’s four main high schools.
There are plenty of debates to be had in Madison, Dane County, Wisconsin and the whole of the United States about actions that must be taken at this critical juncture. But this debate about police in schools has been had, after many years of ardent advocacy by the social justice group Freedom Inc., and as a growing number of school board members have embraced the idea. Now, it is time to act.
The Madison school board should vote to begin the process of removing school resource officers (SROs) from the high schools, to develop better models for protecting students and staff, and to invest in the education and services that can provide a true sense of safety and equity.
The board should vote to remove the SROs for two reasons.
First, this shift in approach is appropriate and necessary. The arguments for it are strong. The arguments against are weak.
Second, the change can be a starting point for a host of changes that need to be made to create new models for public safety and public service in Madison and Dane County.
The necessity and appropriateness of the change was summed up by Madison Teachers Inc., the union that represents teachers and staff in the schools. MTI had historically supported keeping the SROs in the high schools, but MTI president Andy Waity now says, “We see the systematic racism that exists in our current structures and join the voices of our students and our community in calling for dramatic change in how we educate and interact with all of our students, especially those most marginalized in our schools and society.”
A statement from the union acknowledged that MTI's past support the SROs was based on a desire “to create safe places for our students and staff” and on a understanding that “School Resource Officers build strong relationships with students, provide a sense of safety and security for all people, and often take on more of the role of a social worker or counselor than that of a law enforcement officer.” This newspaper once shared the view that this was a sufficient argument for keeping the SROs in the schools, but we have come to the conclusion that we were wrong.
We don’t disregard the sincere efforts of a number of the SROs. But it is increasingly clear that School Board president Gloria Reyes — a former Madison police officer who recently announced her support for removing the SROs from the schools — is right when she says, “The complexities of these times have lasting and painful memories for our students and staff, and we must press harder to dismantle systems that perpetuate racism and create new structures, void of harmful inequities, and with the well-being of every student at the center.”
It is also clear that many of the arguments that are being made for keeping the SROs fall short.
We question the logic of a police presence in the schools for a host of practical reasons. If the point is to keep students safe from mass shootings and other forms of violence, then why are the SROs only in the high schools, when most MMSD students are in elementary and middle schools? And if, as has been suggested, the officers “often take on more of the role of a social worker or counselor than that of a law enforcement officer,” then why not use the resources that go to fund SROs to hire social workers and counselors?
The answer, to our view, is that the schools should do just that. Ending the police presence in the schools will be a process, and school board members and administrators should begin it by establishing clear protocols and standards for keeping students and staff safe. All schools should, as MTI suggests, “be properly staffed with counselors, psychologists, social workers, nurses, and mental health specialists according to the national American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) recommended levels.” Teachers and students should get more training in conflict resolution, as well as restorative justice.
“What’s needed,” says school board member Savion Castro, “is a commitment to a different model of education. That’s the end goal. Instead of relying on the police, we rely on the public health and mental health support staff. That’s a new way of thinking about education.”
Which brings us that second point about the prospect that change in the schools can be a starting point for change in the community as a whole. Public schools, at their best, are the places where new ideas and new approaches are embraced. If the school board comes up with a smart plan for this different model for education, and if we all help to find the resources to implement it, it can provide a vital template for changes that the city and the county should be making to promote community control of policing and a new vision for public safety that is grounded in principles of racial and social justice.
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