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Police in schools

Protesters against school-based police officers forced the Madison School Board into a closed room to conduct a meeting in March.

Amid a contentious two-year debate over whether the Madison School District should continue contracting with the city to station one police officer in each of its four main high schools, district administrators blocked a survey aimed at gauging whether high school staff wanted the officers to stay.

The four-question survey was created by the National Police Foundation and offered to the district by the Madison Police Department, which was encouraged by an outside consultant in 2017 to collect feedback from the groups it serves, including the schools.

It’s unclear if the district, the Madison teachers union or any other group has ever conducted a survey of district staffers on school resource officers, or SROs. However, an ad hoc committee of the School Board spent more than a year studying the SRO program and local social justice group Freedom Inc. has been calling for the officers’ removal for nearly three years, often by disrupting or shutting down board meetings.

According to emails released by the Police Department under the state’s public records law, Assistant Chief Vic Wahl asked Joe Balles, the district’s head of security, on Nov. 29 about having the district distribute the survey to staff, then followed up with him multiple times over the next three months as Balles, a retired Madison police officer, declined to say whether the district would allow the survey to be administered.

On Jan. 30, Balles wrote Wahl to say he’d emailed Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham about the survey and “really promoting the fact The Police Foundation is administering the survey and reporting back the survey results.”

“I’m leaning toward sending this out to ALL high school staff through our four high school principals,” he said.

It’s not clear from the records why that didn’t happen. Wahl said he had phone conversations with district staff about the survey, but declined to detail them and referred the State Journal to the district.

District spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said the survey was presented after the ad hoc committee on the SRO program had completed its work, “and the timing did not seem right for an outside survey.”

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“The committee had finished its work and we trusted that work to inform the board,” which by then was in negotiations on a new SRO contract with the city, she said.

According to the ad hoc committee’s September 2018 report to the School Board, committee members interviewed about 60 staff members across the four main high schools: East, West, Memorial and La Follette. There are about 850 total staff at the schools.

School Board member Mary Burke, who was president of the board for a year until earlier this month, said that “as far as I know” the existence of the police survey had not been shared with the board.

The Police Foundation survey would have asked respondents to rate the effectiveness and professionalism of the SROs at the schools where they worked on a five-point scale, asked them to rate the confidence they had in the Police Department on a four-point scale, and provided respondents a chance to share anything else they wanted about the SROs or the Police Department. It also asked for respondents’ demographic information and where they worked.

The district is in the final school year of a three-school-year-contract to station SROs at the four main high schools. The ad hoc committee in September recommended the officers remain, but the School Board approved the recommendation in December with an amendment that would give the district the final say over whether any specific SRO remains at a school. The city has said that it cannot hand over control of a personnel decision to the district and negotiations on a new contract have largely been stalled since then.

The teachers union, Madison Teachers Inc., has expressed support for keeping SROs in the schools, and since a new Behavior Education Plan was instituted in the 2014-15 year, teachers have complained of growing disorder in the schools and restrictions from administration on their ability to control their classrooms and punish bad behavior.

Activists opposed to SROs point to the disproportionate number of black students disciplined in the Madison schools and the disproportionate number of blacks incarcerated in Dane County and Wisconsin. They say police officers’ presence in schools contributes to the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

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