As the Madison School Board prepares to explore removing school resource officers from its high schools, members of a recent ad hoc committee on the topic hope their year-and-a-half of work is taken into account.
None of the seven current board members were in their seats when the board created the ERO Ad Hoc Committee and its charge in early 2017. And just two who accepted its report and recommendations in October 2018 remain — Nicki Vander Meulen and board president Gloria Reyes.
Less than two years later, there has been significant movement on the issue. A majority of the board members, including Reyes, have indicated publicly they want to remove SROs (also called educational resource officers or EROs) from the district’s high schools at some point amid a nationwide reckoning with systemic racism.
The Cap Times spoke with six of the 12 members of the committee, including all three former board members who took part in the process, to ask what they learned and their thoughts on the latest developments. The paper reached out to all of the members via email, but some did not respond or declined to be interviewed.
All of the interviews occurred before the Wednesday announcement that the School Board would vote on the contract next Monday.
Most members who spoke with the Cap Times said they favored removing officers, but didn’t think doing so immediately would solve the problem at the heart of the issue: feeling safe at school.
And some of the committee members wonder what happened to their months of work and why Reyes is calling for another subcommittee to investigate how to transition to having no SROs in schools. Under the contract with the Madison Police Department, a decision needs to be made by Sept. 15 to be effective June 2021.
“I just hope that the work that the ERO Ad Hoc did is not completely disregarded,” said former School Board member Anna Moffit. “People took a lot of time to put that report together and we did spend a lot of time in our schools talking to staff, talking to students, looking at research.
“I would hate to see a new committee be created and doing the same thing over again.”
In an email Tuesday, Reyes wrote she anticipates the subcommittee will be established in July, with a task to review “policies and procedures related to safety and security in our four comprehensive high schools without the presence of School Resource Officers.” While the board will consider the recommendations from the Ad Hoc Committee, she noted that its recommendations focused on best practices for having SROs rather than removing them.
The 2017-18 Ad Hoc Committee’s charge did not include recommending whether or not to keep officers in schools. Instead, they were asked to review data, guidance, contracts, best practices elsewhere and recommendations for contract language and policy.
Some of the recommendations in the Ad Hoc Committee’s final report are reflected in the contract approved in 2019, mostly through language changes. Others, like creating an ongoing advisory committee for oversight, have not been put in place.
The district is in the process of reviewing progress on all of the committee’s recommendations, Madison Metropolitan School District spokesman Tim LeMonds wrote in an email, and staff is expected to update the board soon.
Those who spoke with the Cap Times highlighted the complexity of the SRO issue, recalling hearing strong competing thoughts from youth activists in Freedom Inc. and some staff in the buildings.
“Being safe and feeling safe are two different things and both are really relevant,” said Justice Castaneda, Common Wealth Development executive director who is against police in schools. “A lot of people don’t feel safe in schools, teachers, students; on either side of the police coin.”
They also spoke to the depth of the issue and how it goes beyond officers’ presence — general safety, state laws, housing segregation and academic achievement were among the broader topics the committee members cited as related to the discussion.
“I worked hard to try and get attention to this and work on this so that we’d get it right and put a lot of time into it, but this is far from the most important thing going on in our schools,” said TJ Mertz, a former School Board member. “It’s taken on more weight than it’s worth. It’s four police officers in four schools. There’s a lot of other things that are going on in our schools.”
The 21-page report from the committee followed months of reviewing research, looking at practices in other districts and talking with students and staff in buildings.
“I think we did some great work,” said Payal Khandhar, a local defense attorney. “I at least personally got a really nuanced understanding of the school system and the problems there.”
The committee’s report tried to illustrate the complexity of having officers in schools and the wide range of perceptions about their presence.
“We learned that there are many students in our schools whose needs are not being met by the current educational environment,” the report states. “We learned of the myriad ways in which school staff and leadership recognize EROs as an essential support for students and school safety. We also learned that the presence of EROs can needlessly contribute to the criminalization of student behavior and negatively affect students’ sense of safety and belonging.”
Per its charge, the committee did not recommend the “immediate termination” of the program. Instead, it focused on “short-term recommendations for changes” to the program that would help the district work toward “conditions where all members of the school community feel safe, and no members of the school community feel unreasonably criminalized or disproportionately targeted with police interaction.”
“The committee believes that a healthy relationship between MMSD, MPD and the families of MMSD students is the operational imperative that we should always strive to maintain,” the report states.
Some of the recommendations made it into the latest contract, approved in June 2019 on a 4 to 3 vote. Those include language changes to stress that SROs should not enforce school policies and initial investigations into potential criminal violations on school grounds should be done in consultation with school officials to determine “the best course of action balancing the best interests of the student and the school community.”
Among the recommendations that have not been implemented, Mertz cited three as especially significant: an ongoing public oversight committee, a complaint process that would be separate from the MPD procedure and agreements that could limit offenses SROs could make arrests for.
“One of the things that people talk about is community control over policing,” Mertz said. “We were trying to create something like community control over policing in the schools.”
In its early months, one of the committee members expressed concerns about how much the board would consider its report.
“It is unclear to me how much weight the recommendations that this committee makes will have on what actually happens outside of this committee,” Abra Vigna, researcher and evaluator at the UW Population Health Institute, said at a July 2017 meeting.
Dean Loumos, then a School Board member, assured the group that the board would seriously consider the recommendations, according to a 2017 Cap Times article. The group included nine community members, including one high school teacher, and three School Board members.
“This committee is going to make a recommendation to the full board, and there are three of us sitting here,” he said. "There is a pretty good chance that what this committee decides is what’s going to happen.”
But just six months after the report, none of those board members remained. Moffit had lost an election in spring 2018, and in spring 2019 Mertz lost his race while Loumos did not run for re-election.
“It’s a little unfortunate that board members that were on there didn’t have the chance to continue to push them, just to remind them, ‘This is here,’” Loumos said.
Castaneda said the turnover limits the “legislative work that you’d hope a legislative body can do.”
“The School Board is inept as a body, not as individuals, but the way that it turns over it’s not a functioning legislative body,” he said.
Learning the nuances
Most of the committee members who spoke with the Cap Times said they went into the process wanting to remove police from schools, or at least wanted to limit overcriminalization of students.
While all of them called the recent news of the board moving in that direction good, they said it took lots of time for the committee to grasp the nuances of the school safety issue, of which officers are one part. They recalled deciding that immediate removal was not the best route.
“Ending the contract doesn’t stop police from being in our schools,” Castaneda said. “It comes from this institution of fear. If people feel afraid and they’re calling the police, the police are going to show up.
“Even with no police in the schools, that environment of safety was nonexistent, and so you have adults and people who don’t feel safe, the likelihood of them using the police as a resource is high.”
Committee member Vigna said she was “surprised at who at times was very grateful” about the presence of officers, mentioning some juvenile offenders who were concerned about retaliation from others while at school. As someone who wanted to be in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement’s calls for “no cops in schools” and a firm believer that guns do not belong in schools, she determined work needs to be done on a deeper level than just whether or not police should be in schools.
“We should be talking about the root causes of why does anyone think that they’re necessary? And why do people think they’re not necessary?” Vigna said. “It was hard to say we were recommending a graduated removal. I wanted to advocate for immediate agreement with the demands from the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Beyond the deeper questions about what it means to be safe at school, a state law change in early 2018 solidified for the committee members that the officers needed to remain for the time being.
After the Parkland, Florida, school shooting, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a school safety bill that included a requirement for staff to report any threats of school violence to law enforcement — and face a possible fine or prison for an “intentional violation” of the reporting requirement. With what they’d heard from administrators and teachers, committee members recalled, police seemed likely to be a resource for dealing with that.
“It became clear that with the culture in the schools that police officers were going to be called,” recalled Khandhar. “The way that statute is worded is very threatening. It’s clear that somebody can end up with criminal charges against them just because of a threat that they heard that they didn’t act on.”
Loumos, who chaired the committee for its final few months, said, “We kind of got our hands tied at that point.”
“That was a new curve thrown at us, and it was the question of, who do you want to show up?” Loumos said.
That left the group with two choices, as Khandhar saw it: recommend the removal of officers, but see police respond to incidents without training to work with students; or maintain the contract and have some measure of control through it.
“When that statute passed... it was clear that with the culture in the school of there just being fear of things escalating or things getting out of control, that law enforcement was going to be called,” she said. “There’s going to be officers in the school — do we get to control them or do we not get to control them? I want to have some level of control.”
They’re hopeful the board can determine a good way to move forward, but ultimately see the district moving toward change as a positive.
“Sometimes things can’t happen until the time is right for them, we reach that tipping point," Loumos said. “We’re certainly at one of those moments now, and I think we’ve been leading up to it for awhile.”
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