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Madison School Board meeting

Supporters and employees of Freedom Inc., a local social justice organization, urged the Madison School Board on Monday to reject a proposed three-year contract that would continue the use of armed and uniformed police officers in the city's four main high schools. The board eventually backed the contract on a 4-2 vote.

The Madison School Board on Monday backed a proposed contract that would keep police officers at Madison's four main high schools.

Board members voted 4-2 in favor of the proposed contract, which would emphasize alternative disciplines instead of arresting or citing students, lay the groundwork for a new complaint procedure against the officers and require more training in areas such as autism, adolescent brain development and implicit bias.

The board, though, added contract language that would give the Madison School District the ability to require an officer be replaced.

"The reality is things that we don't control make having (police officers) in our schools absolutely the best decision," said board president Mary Burke. "Unfortunately yes, there are downsides, unintended consequences."

Members T.J. Mertz, James Howard, Dean Loumos and Burke supported the contract, Nicki Vander Meulen and Kate Toews voted against it, and Gloria Reyes was not present for the vote.

Earlier in the meeting, the school board approved by a vote of 5-2 a new specialized learning track for its Personalized Pathways program to go in effect at East, La Follette and Memorial high schools during the 2019-20 school year.

The new pathway is slated to focus on information technology and communications. The Personalized Pathways program is billed as offering a rigorous, interconnected curriculum across students' core classes, plus electives, related to the pathway theme.

Eighth-grade students can apply for a pathway that is meant to provide them with real-world context in their specialized area of study from ninth grade through graduation. The district is in its second year of its health services pathway -- the first track of the program -- and now has freshmen and sophomores on the pathway.

Before voting on the police contract, board members debated its merits and whether it meets the recommendations that a committee settled on earlier this year.

This academic year is the last in a three-year contract between the district and the Madison Police Department to station one armed and uniformed officer at each of the district's primary high schools -- East, La Follette, Memorial and West.

The proposed contract refers to the officers as School Resource Officers, SROs, instead of as Educational Resource Officers, EROs -- the term used in the current contract. It would cover the 2019-20, 2020-21 and 2021-22 academic years.

Like the current agreement, the proposed contract would give the city or district the option to cancel the contract after the second year if either party requested to do so by April 1, 2021.

The Madison City Council would also need to approve the contract for the program to continue.

"I'm not sure that we're doing the right thing," said Toews. "We have a better contract today than we did a year ago, but I'm not sure it's as good as it could be."

More than 50 people spoke at the meeting with a large majority of them opposing SROs.

Employees of and students involved with Freedom Inc., a local social justice organization, shared their personal stories about negative interactions with police officers as they urged the board to reject the contract and put the funds for SROs toward other initiatives.

After regularly showing up at school board and committee meetings for nearly two years, several people expressed frustration, saying board members were not listening to them.

"These children need counselors. These children need help," said LaToya Greer, president of the Madison chapter of All of Us or None, a nonprofit advocating for formerly incarcerated people and their families. "How are you helping these children by telling them what they need?"

In September, an ad hoc committee set up explicitly to examine EROs recommended 16 changes to the duties, oversight and use of the officers following nearly 20 months of work.

Some of those recommendations were built into the proposed contract language.

The new contract would have the school district develop a complaint procedure for students, family members and district staff to file grievances against an SRO that would be a separate process than the Police Department's complaint process.

It would also allow SROs to "occasionally wear a 'soft' uniform or plain clothes uniform" at the discretion of their command staff.

Officers could continue to provide information to students on laws, ordinances and the juvenile code, but the proposed contract would prohibit SROs from providing "legal advice to students."

"This program gives us an opportunity to have a great degree of influence on how police are in our schools," Mertz said.

But Mertz said his support of the contract was contingent on giving the district the ability to remove an officer "for cause." He moved the successful amendment that would allow the district to require a replacement SRO if issues can't be resolved.

Under the new contract, the district would pay an estimated $366,000 in 2019, $373,000 in 2020 and $380,000 in 2021 for the SROs wages and benefits, plus $110 per week for the use of the squad cars.

Mertz said some of the recommendations from the ad hoc committee, such as creating a standing advisory committee on the officers, are things the district can pursue independently without it explicitly being mentioned in the contract.

[Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The original version incorrectly described the amendment the School Board voted on. While School Board member T.J. Mertz specified that officers could only be removed "for cause," the contract that was ultimately adopted does not contain that phrase.]

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Logan Wroge has been a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal since 2015.