Cops in Schools: Critics Say District is Moving Too Slowly

By Eric Timmons

The plan to reduce the presence of police in La Crosse public schools does not go far enough, deeply disappointing those who had pushed the district to terminate its contract with the police department.

That was the message from a group of speakers at Monday’s school board meeting, who expressed frustration that the district was proposing a reduction in the School Resource Officer (SRO) program, rather than ending it completely next June when the current agreement expires. 

Over the course of several meetings on the SRO program since the summer, current and former BIPOC students have shared personal testimony about how the police presence in La Crosse schools makes them feel unsafe. 

“How many more stories must we tell in order for change to happen,” said Nancy Yang, Youth Program Coordinator at Cia Siab, Inc., at Monday’s school board meeting. “How much more trauma must our youth of color go through before our schools finally do something to make them feel safe and like they belong.”

The stories shared by students were allied with a detailed report released by Dr. Aaron Engel, the school district’s superintendent, that showed students of color are disproportionately disciplined and suspended in the district. A survey in the report also found the presence of police made 50% of Black and 60% of Indigenous La Crosse high school students feel more or much more unsafe at school.

But, Engel last month proposed only a phased reduction in the SRO program. The plan would reduce the number of SROs from five to three by July 1, 2021 and to two by July 1, 2022. The cost of the contract would be reduced from $250,000 to $100,000 over that timeframe, but crucially an agreement with the police would remain. Critics, citing the evidence presented by Engel and the testimony from students, want that agreement terminated permanently.

At Monday’s school board meeting, Engel’s recommendations on the program were on the agenda for discussion only. A vote is expected at the next board meeting, which is scheduled for Dec. 21.

Engel sought to justify his plan for the program at Monday’s meeting, noting that it would removing the ongoing presence of police in schools. He also said time was needed to build up alternative, non-punitive programs to replace the SROs. Additionally, Engel said there were instances when police would have to be called onto school property and, when that happens, it would be better if those officers had a relationship with students and were specially trained to work in schools.

Mai Lee, Director of Social Justice at Cia Siab, Inc., said she was deeply disheartened by the district plan which, in her words, would result in the continuation of a failing program. The district should instead listen to youth of color and end the contract with police, she added.

“Reducing the number of SROs is a half measure in an attempt to satisfy administrators, individuals who primarily call SROs, while completely disregarding the demands of BIPOC youth and community members to end the program,” Lee said.

The SRO program has been in place for about 27 years but calls to end it intensified this year in the midst of the nationwide protests against police violence and racism in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

It was unclear at Monday’s meeting how individual board members intend to vote on Engel’s recommendations to reduce the program. But Engel insisted to the board that the plan would result in significant change in how students are treated, including by reducing instances where children are criminalized on school property.

“Students’ behavior will be approached through more therapeutic practices and through the implementation of proactive social services,” a statement from Engel said. “This change takes time though. Simply removing SROs from schools will not change habits and calling dispatch can just as easily be the response instead of calling down the hall to an SRO. Supports need to be built up and new strategies put in place for change to successfully occur.” 

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