Does having more officers in a school automatically mean more safety? More and more school districts are questioning that premise after protests sparked from the killing of George Floyd.
Peter Medlin reports from DeKalb.
School-based policing is one of the fastest growing sectors of law enforcement. When mass shootings like that in Parkland, Florida shine a light on school safety, districts often react by adding officers.
Judith Browne Dianis is the executive director of Advancement Project, a national racial justice organization. Browne Dianis says police aren’t the solution to school shootings.
“What schools need to be thinking about is how do we create environments where that young person doesn’t bring a gun into school,” she said.
Studies show that students of color are disciplined at disproportionate rates in schools. Advancement Project says police presence in schools exacerbates that disparity and fuels a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“As long as we keep throwing police at the problem and siphoning off money, millions of dollars to militarize our schools, it makes young people think you don’t trust me. You think I’m a criminal,” she said.
Browne Dianis says that money should be spent on mental health services, like counselors and school psychologists.
Jamie Craven is the Superintendent at DeKalb Public Schools. He says schools shouldn’t have to choose between mental health services and officers. His district just added a third school resource officer, or SRO, this year.
“Without question, mental health providers are also working in a very preventative role. Our SROs are doing it from a different perspective,” said Craven. “I would never say one is more important than the other.”
He said their new officer was hired primarily to support staff at the middle and elementary levels.
“It was more to help assist with parents and adults who were upset and showing up at the buildings,” he said.
Craven says DeKalb’s SROs are there to do the obvious as well — like threat assessment and event security.
Kip Heinle has been a school resource officer at the Triad School District for 15 years. He echoed Craven’s sentiment about SROs being more than just officers.
“We’re mentors to these kids. You know, sometimes we deal with kids without fathers or mothers or, you know, just having a bad day,” said Heinle. “So we’re mentors, we’re counselors.”
He says his main goal is to make a difference and show that not all police officers are bad. For him, that means going to games and events to support students.
Judith Browne Dianis and Advancement Project don’t think officers are qualified to function in that capacity.
“Why does it have to be a police officer that builds a relationship? Why can’t it be a mental health professional? Why can’t it be a counselor? Why can’t it just be the coach, all of these other people?” she said.
Heinle says he works with school counselors every day. But, bottom line, he says, SROs need to be there to protect schools. In an active shooter situation, Heinle says, every second counts.
“When evil walks down your hall in a school building, who’s going to stop the evil? You have to have police in there. Like I said, we go hand in hand with school psychologists and school social workers,” he said.
He says he only made one arrest at school last year.
“As far as police work goes, I’m very fortunate. I don’t do a whole lot of police work that much,” he said. “My school is a good school. I don’t take many calls, but I still keep busy doing other stuff.”
That includes assisting with weekend calls that may deal with students or former students.
Heinle supports SROs having more training and recently worked with the state to develop a training program for officers.
He says it’s a 40-hour regimen that includes trauma-informed care and crisis intervention. Participants also need to be certified juvenile officers. But if officers have taken the national training program, Heinle says they likely won’t have to do Illinois’ as well.
That Illinois training requirement was supposed to go into effect in January of 2021. But, Heinle says it’ll most likely be delayed due to COVID-19.
Meanwhile, some districts are considering whether to remove SROs altogether.
The Chicago Teachers Union is one of the latest calling for police-free schools. The Chicago SRO program was called “highly problematic” by an Inspector General report in 2019 after it failed to make reforms.
Changes have been implemented, but it’s uncertain whether it’ll be enough, or if Chicago will join the likes of Minneapolis and remove police officers from its schools.