By Eric Timmons
La Crosse School District Superintendent Dr. Aaron Engel is recommending the school board vote for a “phased reduction” in the number of police officers assigned to schools, from the current five down to two by 2022.
The move would cut the cost of the district’s contract with police from the current $244,000 to $100,000 in 2022. Critically, it would “reduce the ongoing, routine presence of SROs (School Resource Officers) in school buildings,” Engel’s report said. Five SROs are assigned to La Crosse middle and high schools currently. That number would be reduced to to three by July 1, 2021 and to two by July 1, 2022, under Engel’s proposal.
He made his recommendation to the school board Monday after months of deliberation, including interviews with diverse community members. The school board is now expected to vote on the recommendation at its second meeting in December.
Engel said his proposal would signal a move away from the criminalization of students and a punitive system of discipline. He presented an 111 page report to the school board to back up his recommendation.
“Key findings show that the markers of the school-to-prison pipeline are present in the School District of La Crosse,” Engel wrote in the report.
Students of color, students in poverty, male students, and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined and suspended in the district, the report found. The report also noted that the “La Crosse SRO program is staffed and funded at a higher rate than other comparable school districts” in a city that disproportionately arrests Black juveniles.
“It’s kind of disheartening and troubling for me to recognize that our own school district and community is contributing to the assassination of Black bodies – and not Black bodies by death, but Black bodies by killing their dreams, killing their moments of success,” School board member Shaundel Spivey said at Monday’s meeting.
Engel’s proposed reduction in spending on the police contract would be matched with an increase in funding for what the district calls “proactive social service resources” by $100,000 for the 2021-2022 school year and by an additional $50,000 the following year. Those resources could include restorative justice programs, community school coordinators and cultural liaisons. Engel said non-punitive methods were preferred by students, staff and parents and were felt to be more effective than suspensions, tickets or arrests.
“We want students to belong, we want our students to feel safe,” Engel said.
Black students and students with disabilities in La Crosse schools reported more negative interactions with SROs and more frequently indicate that SROs make them feel unsafe, according to the superintendent’s report. But the changes proposed by Engel should lead to a system where law enforcement would be called to schools only in “extremely rare circumstances,” he said. By maintaining the SRO program, the officers called in those rare circumstances would be police with special training and experience in the schools.
Engel stressed that the move to reduce the presence of police in school was “not about individuals, but a system that has built up over time.” He’s also proposing that an SRO oversight committee be established.
The superintendent’s report also highlighted wider problems in the district that go beyond the SRO program. Graduation rates for Black students in the district and students with disabilities have declined while graduation rates for some other groups have grown or stayed the same, expanding graduation gaps, the report found. Overall the district suspends students out-of-school at a rate nearly three times greater than school districts with similar demographics.
School board members who spoke at Monday’s meeting did not indicate if they would vote in favor of Engel’s recommendation, although several praised the superintendent’s contribution.
The board has been discussing its contract with police since the summer, with the current agreement set to expire in June 2021. Police were first assigned to La Crosse high schools in 1993, which marked the beginning of what’s now known as the SRO program.
Districts around the country have been reassessing their relationship with police since the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May. Floyd’s death triggered months of protest against police violence and racism. School Districts in Madison, Milwaukee, and Winona have ended their contracts with police since then.
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