Asst. Police Chief Hits Back at Plan to Remove Officers From Schools

La Crosse assistant police chief Rob Abraham has come out swinging against the idea of ending the $250,000 contract that pays to put police officers in local schools.

Speaking on Rick Solem’s WIZM radio show on Thursday, Abraham said the benefits of having police in schools, such as police acting as the “first line of defense” to keep children safe, were not being given enough attention.

“I think those things are getting overlooked based on knee-jerk reactions and possibly personal agendas at the school board level,” Abraham said.

He also suggested online comments on various local media stories about the school board considering ending the $250,000 contract had shown significant public opposition to the proposal. 

“When you have a board or a board member who thinks opposite, they need to remember who they are representing,” he said of the school board. “They are not representing themselves, or their ideas.”

The assistant chief said parents and students had yet to be consulted about the proposal. But the contract between the school district and the police doesn’t end until June, 2021, leaving plenty of time for deeper investigation of the issue.

All that the school board is expected to vote on when it meets next week is a proposal to form a subcommittee to investigate how the $250,000 from the police contract could be reallocated, if the agreement was not renewed..

“They’re operating on their own agenda,” Abraham said. “The school board is an elected body eligible for recall and they need to listen to the parents.”

However, La Crosse school board president Laurie Cooper Stoll rejected the notion that the board was moving too quickly, or not considering different opinions on the issue.

“A knee-jerk reaction might be to just terminate the contract now with a seven-day notice,” she told The La Crosse Independent. “Instead, the school board is discussing the possibility of engaging in a proactive and transparent process whereby people in our district and in our community, as well as important stakeholder groups, including the police, can provide input.”

Cooper Stoll added: “I don’t know that I would call it an ‘agenda’ but our role as school board members includes asking tough questions about whether our mission, vision, and educational priorities are aligned; being good stewards of taxpayer dollars; and ensuring our district is one in which all students, staff, and families are welcome, safe, and included.”

It was Cooper Stoll who proposed forming the subcommittee to look at how the $250,000 being spent on the police contract could be reallocated, but there are indications that several other board members support the move.

Spending on the School Resource Officer program, which pays to put five police officers in the district’s high and middle schools as well as for a district-wide D.A.R.E. officer, has increased by 47 percent in just five years, from $170,000 in 2015 to $250,000 now.

Speaking on WIZM, Abraham  referenced a letter from Wally Gnewikow, Logan High School Principal, sent to parents this week, encouraging them to give input to the school board on the issue.

“We strongly believe that all stakeholders should be heard regarding an important decision which may have a tremendous impact on our staff and students,” Gnewikow wrote.

Abraham added an ominous warning about what he thinks could happen if the five police officers who currently work at middle and high schools in La Crosse are removed. 

“If people want to go back to the police just showing up and arresting or citing, that is where you will see a dramatic deterioration of public confidence, public trust and police legitimacy,” he said.

The loss of the contract would be a financial blow to the police department’s $11.6 million budget that its leaders will be eager to avoid, especially at a time when the city is strapped for cash.

Abraham noted before he started to comment on the issue that he was known for speaking his mind, which has landed him in hot water in the past. He added that he had to be careful not to “upset the apple cart” ahead of an upcoming phone call between La Crosse police chief Shawn Kudron and Cooper Stoll. 

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer last month and the often violent response of police to protests sparked by Floyd’s death have prompted a questioning of police practices and funding across the country, including in La Crosse.

The school board meets Monday, June 22, when it will discuss forming the subcommittee to look into the School Resource Officer program and what else the $250,000 in question could be spent on. 

Email questions to Photo credit: Dickelbers/CC BY-SA 3.0  

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