By Eric Timmons
“Our students attend schools, not prisons,” said Dr. Laurie Cooper Stoll, the president of the La Crosse Board of Education, before the board voted Monday to reduce the number of cops assigned to the district’s middle and high schools.
The vote, coming in a year marked by mass demonstrations against police violence and racism, will end the ongoing presence of so-called School Resource Officers (SROs) in La Crosse public schools, according to district superintendent Dr. Aaron Engel. This means that although the SRO program will continue, police will not be present in school hallways, at break times, and to greet students in the mornings, as happens now.
The plan approved by the board will reduce the number of SROs from the current five to three by July 1, 2021, and two by July 1, 2022. The cost of the program would fall from $244,000 for this school year to $100,000 by 2022. Critics had called for the 27-year-old program to be terminated completely, but it will remain, albeit in a significantly reduced form.
School board member Pelli Lee provided the only vote against Engel’s recommendations at Monday’s meeting. Board members Keonte Turner and Jeff Meyer abstained. Lee did praise Engel’s detailed review of the program (read it here), which noted students of color, students in poverty, and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined and suspended in the district. Turner said he viewed the situation detailed in the report as a crisis and would have liked the district to move faster to remove police from schools.
“I do want to expedite the process but I understand that we cannot,” he added.
According to Engel, the reasons for not terminating the SRO program include that more time is needed to build up replacement, non-punitive programs, and that there will remain times when police have to be called. In those instances, the district would prefer to have a specially trained officer respond.
Dr. Cooper Stoll noted that Engel’s report showed that 40-60% of the times police are called to resolve an issue are for situations “that we shouldn’t be calling law enforcement for.” The superintendent will now be tasked with overseeing a culture change to ensure police are no longer called to deal with minor issues.
One of the justifications for the SRO program by its supporters is that it helps police build positive relationships with students. Dr. Cooper Stoll dismissed that argument at Monday’s meeting.
“I don’t believe that building a positive relationship between our students and the police department is within the scope of our mission, or vision, as a school district, and I agree with a lot of the public speakers who pointed out that in a number of respects, it’s antithetical to both,” she said. “In addition, I think that if law enforcement wants to teach classes in our schools and interact with our students on a much more regular and ongoing basis, then they should obtain a teaching credential or the other professional experience that we require of our own staff before we allow them to interact with our students in that capacity.”
Board member Dawn Comeau, who voted for Engel’s recommendations, said she supported SROs and characterized her vote as being primarily for budgetary reasons. Engel’s report had found that the district’s SRO program was staffed and funded at a higher rate than in other comparable districts.
The current agreement with the police department expires next June. A revised agreement will now be negotiated with police by next July. Engel’s recommendations also included a provision to create a new SRO oversight committee, also by July.
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