Students at Forum on Cops in Schools Deliver Clear Message

Cops in schools do not make us feel safe.

That was the insistent message from current and former La Crosse School District students who spoke at Monday’s forum on the future of the School Resource Officer (SRO) program. Sixteen of the 17 speakers at the event were in favor of the school district ending its contract with the La Crosse Police Department, which expires in June, 2021.

The forum was the second of two on the issue and the final one before district superintendent Dr. Aaron Engel makes his recommendation to the school board on the future of the program, likely at the Nov. 16 school board meeting. Following Engel’s recommendation, the board is expected to vote on the issue.

Logan High School student Chaya Davis was among the speakers at Monday’s virtual forum. 

“As a Black student seeing SROs in my school, it makes me feel unsafe,” Davis said. “They have to go.”

Her point was echoed by another Logan student, Brianna Washington, who said SROs make her feel “uncomfortable and targeted.”

The district’s $250,000 contract with the police department pays to put five police officers in La Crosse middle and high schools, in addition to one district-wide D.A.R.E officer. The officers remain under the supervision of the police department while they work in the schools, according to the agreement between the district and the police department. Earlier this year, the school board launched a review of the program that will culminate in the expected vote next month.

Vincent Loera, a former child welfare worker for La Crosse County, said that when he had to work with SROs in that role, it changed the way he was viewed by parents and children. Instead of being seen as someone who was there to help he became an “authoritarian,” he said. The result was a breakdown in trust that made his job more difficult. Loera, who said he favored ending the SRO program, was one of several speakers who noted that physical safety was not the only kind of safety the district needed to think about. But, as other speakers noted, police officers are not trained to protect and support students emotionally.

“We do not expect teachers to be nurses, so it makes no sense to ask the police to do things they are not trained to do,” said Laura Abellera, who spoke against the SRO program. Abellera, who works as an organizer with Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) said that evidence showed that police in schools actually did little to prevent shootings and mainly attended to low-level offenses. Criminalizing youth is simply not the answer, she added.

La Crosse resident and parent Peter Gorski also spoke in favor of removing police from schools at the forum.

“This isn’t about the character of the officers working in the schools, this is a systemic issue,” he said, adding that he would prefer that schools handle discipline internally, rather than using police, which can have far-reaching consequences for students who may be criminalized as a result.

Mai Lee, the Social Justice Director at La Crosse nonprofit Cia Siab, Inc., said that removing police from schools was not a solution to all the issues students of color face. But it would be a starting point.

“As a Hmong person growing up, I was always wary and fearful of cops,” she said. “SROs do not make us feel safe.”

Lee said the $250,000 spent on the police contract should be reinvested in programs that support and uplift youth of color. La Crosse simply needs to do better for those students, she said.

No police spoke at Monday’s forum, but La Crosse Police Chief Shawn Kudron has previously spoken out publicly in favor of the district retaining the SRO program. He says the program helps to build positive relationships with students, while keeping them safe. But a major criticism opponents of the program have is that much of the good work done by police in schools could be done by other, unarmed professionals, who students of color are less likely to fear.

The sole supporter of the SRO program at Monday’s forum was Stephanie Chroninger. She said her son had been attacked on several occasions at school in La Crosse and needed a police presence to feel safe.

“Should my son have to fear going to school without an SRO just because another student feels intimidated by that SRO?” she asked, adding that in her view removing police would not solve the wider issue of racism in schools.

Dr. Engel will use the testimony from Monday’s forum, in addition to other research and interviews with stakeholders, to inform his recommendation on the program, which he’s expected to make at the Nov. 16 school board meeting. Should the district sever its contract with the police department, it would join a wave of schools across the country who have made the same decision in recent months, as protests against police violence have swept the nation.

By Eric Timmons. Email questions to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com. 

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