Revising my column, on this Fourth of July — the day our country sets aside to celebrate our hard won freedom — proved a meaningful expression of the democratic principles we hold sacred, such as fair determinations of innocence and guilt. I am revising a column on police officers in the Madison Metropolitan District schools per editorial request. I wrote an earlier column about some of the pros and cons of using police officers as school resource officers. The first column would have run before the Tuesday vote by the Madison City Council to approve the SRO contract.
SROs are armed, uniformed police officers stationed at four high schools. Malcolm Shabazz High School does not have an SRO. Despite the controversy that surrounds them, contracts for SROs were recently approved for the 2020-21 school year in three high schools. MMSD Board members Mary Burke, Cris Carusi and Kate Toews joined School Board President Gloria Reyes, a former police officer, in voting in favor of renewing their contract, while Ananda Mirilli, Ali Muldrow and Nicki Vander Meulen voted against. SRO salaries are paid by the district. Madison Teachers Inc. endorsed keeping SROs in schools.
All of the current officers are people of color. There are students who want a police presence, and some in our community believe SROs might be useful at high schools because of the 11 deadly mass shootings that have followed the tragedy at Columbine High School in 1999. Freedom Inc., a local advocacy group, has been adamant about removing all police at high schools, based on the injustice inherent in police arresting children and the disproportionate amount of African American and other students of color arrested in the high schools. In the earlier version of my column, I used an authentic, personal story of parents and their son, friends of mine, who had a negative interaction with an SRO, as a way of pointing out that other voices and other experiences were missing from the discussion about whether to continue with police in high schools.
I watched a family live out the consequences of mistaken identity by an SRO when their son was accused of sexual assault. He was arrested after both the principal and the SRO said that a thorough investigation was completed and her son was guilty. While her son was on home suspension, it was discovered that he was indeed innocent. The principal and SRO had to apologize because the wrong person had been identified. When asked about the “thorough” investigation, the family was told that a teacher verified her son’s guilt and she was believed. Even though they removed their son from the high school, the stigma of the assault accusation and arrest followed him to the new school. Despite a promising career offered to the boy's mother, his parents decided that Madison was not a place to raise their sons and that their innocent son would continue to be victimized if they stayed.
This is just one family’s true story, but what if there are other similar stories with human mistakes made by SROs? What is the mechanism to ensure that in the interest of fairness, more questions about how SROs are supported, as well as systematically regulated, are asked and answered? When we celebrate our freedom on the Fourth of July, we are also celebrating a democracy that encourages civil discourse in order to ensure justice for all.
Fabu, Madison’s former poet laureate, is a consultant in African-American culture and arts. She writes a monthly column for The Capital Times.
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