Supporters, opponents air views on cops in schools at forum

Monica Lazere worked as a social worker at Central High School in La Crosse for 20 years. She identified what seemed to be the crux of the issue for many during Monday’s La Crosse School District forum on the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. 

Could a social worker or other professional, one who isn’t weighed down by a gun and hundreds of years of systemic racism, do much the same job as cops are asked to do in schools? For Lazere, the answer seemed to be yes.

“Another social worker would do just as much good and perhaps more,” she said. “I think police are wonderful, nothing against the police. I just believe they’re not needed in our schools.”

Students need more support for mental health and other issues of the kind that police simply are not trained for, Lazere said. She was one of 22 people who spoke at Monday’s virtual forum, a slight majority of which were in favor of ending the SRO program.

The forum was moderated by La Crosse School District Superintendent Dr. Aaron Engel. He has been charged by the school board with listening to a broad spectrum of stakeholders on the issue of police in schools. Engel will make a recommendation in November, backed by his research, to the board on the future of the program. The district’s contract with the police department, which costs $250,000 annually, ends next June.

Several parents and retired teachers spoke in favor of the SRO program at Monday’s forum. Among them was Doug Leclair, a former assistant principal at Logan High School. He chaired a district safety committee that first brought police into La Crosse schools, and said the SRO program is a “positive force in our schools” that should be maintained and built upon. In particular, he said SROs allowed students to build positive relationships with police.

But one student of color who attends Logan who spoke at Monday’s forum had a different take. Takobie Robinson said police created a hostile environment at school and that he had personally experienced officers acting in a threatening manner towards him.

Among parents who spoke at the forum, some argued that police made their children safe, but other parents of children of color said police made their children frightened, sometimes because of past traumas involving police. 

Several supporters of the SRO program shared anecdotes of times officers had helped particular students in various ways. Laura Abellera, who works as an organizer for the activist group Leaders Igniting Transformation, echoed the point Lazere was getting at when it came to those stories. 

“I also think that a lot of the positive stories that I’m hearing do not require the presence of police officers and could be achieved with professionals of another role, including social workers, mentors, counselors and therapists,” Abellera said.

There were also calls from some supporters of police in schools for more local data to show the impact the SRO program had in La Crosse. A county report in 2014 did find that youth of color in La Crosse were “roughly nine times more likely to be arrested than white juveniles.” Many of those arrests, the report found, were occurring during school hours.

Others at the forum pointed out that it was important to note that La Crosse does not exist in a vacuum.

“We have to understand that the institution of policing in our country continues to cause harm, devastation, and continues to take the lives of our black and brown brothers and sisters with no sign of ever slowing in that destruction,” Abellera said. “The state sanctioned violence that we see on a regular basis in our national news has an inevitable and lasting impact on our young people, especially for those children that share identities with the people being murdered by police.”

Another community forum on SROs is planned for October, Engel said, before he makes his recommendation to the school board, which will likely be followed by a vote on the future of the program.

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