By Eric Timmons
At a demonstration on Friday, BIPOC students called on the La Crosse School Board to cut ties completely with the La Crosse Police Department, instead of voting for a phased reduction of the School Resource Officer program.
The board will vote Monday, after months of deliberation, on a proposal crafted by district superintendent Dr. Aaron Engel to reduce the size of the cops in schools program. Engel’s plan would cut the number of School Resource Officers (SROs) from five to three next summer, when the current contract expires.
The proposal comes after the district listened to testimony from BIPOC students and their parents who described the fear the presence of police in schools creates for them. That fear is backed up by statistics showing that BIPOC youth are disproportionately punished and arrested in La Crosse.
“It’s surprising,” said Chaya Davis, a high school student and member of Black Student Leaders, of the district’s proposal. “Especially after hearing so many stories, and people being so vulnerable in coming forward. It’s really a slap in the face to the Black community and students. They’re not listening to us; we asked for one thing to be safe and they cannot do that, so it shows a lot.”
Davis was among about 25 demonstrators who gathered outside Central High School on Friday evening to call for an end to the SRO program and show solidarity with BIPOC students.
Takobie Robinson, another La Crosse high school student, said at the demonstration that the presence of police in schools fueled the school-to-prison pipeline. That phrase refers to students being criminalized at schools by police, usually for minor offenses, starting a process that can put those students on a path to prison.
Dr. Engel, in a review of the SRO program released last month, wrote: “Key findings show that the markers of the school-to-prison pipeline are present in the School District of La Crosse.”
Those findings included that the district “disproportionately disciplines and suspends students of color, students in poverty, male students, and students with disabilities.”
Dr. Engel’s plan would cut the cost of the SRO program from $244,000 this year to $100,000 by 2022. It would reduce the number of SROs from the five assigned to La Crosse middle and high schools now to three by July 1, 2021, and two by July 1, 2022.
The plan would also end the “ongoing presence” of SROs in schools, according to Dr. Engel, and allow time for non-punitive programs to be built up. But others view the proposal as moving too slowly, while leaving a contract between the district and police in place.
“Despite evidence of the damage it does to the educational attainment, safety, and futures of our young people, the SRO program will continue,” a recent statement from Mai Lee, Social Justice Director at Cia Siab, Inc., said. “Modifying the program by decreasing the number of SROs and stationing SROs outside of schools is not a meaningful step forward. It is the continuation of instilling fear among BIPOC youth.”
Lee called on the district to terminate all contracts with the La Crosse Police Department. Back at Friday’s demonstration, Robinson had a simple message for the school board and district officials: “Listen to your students and end the SRO program.”
The school board meets virtually at 6 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 21, when its expected to vote on Dr. Engel’s recommendations. Link to the meeting livestream and agenda here.
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