Congratulations to the Madison School Board for supporting student safety this week. The board voted 4-3 to keep police officers in city schools.
School Board President Gloria Reyes is right that “it would be irresponsible of us to completely eliminate the program and take officers out of our schools.”
Credit board members Mary Burke, Kate Toews and Cris Carusi for joining Reyes in approving a three-year contract with the city to keep an officer in each of the four main high schools this fall. The contract had been in limbo and was about to expire.
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The School Board dropped its demand that school officials be allowed to unilaterally remove an officer from a school, which would have violated a police union contract. Instead, the new contract allows for the reduction of a single officer from a single high school in 2020 or later — if the district specifies a year in advance which school would no longer have a cop and why. We hope that option isn’t exercised.
Police Chief Mike Koval is understandably concerned that if an officer is taken out of one of the high schools in 2020 or 2021, that will limit how fast his department can respond to calls for help. But overall, Koval is pleased a contract is moving forward. The City Council should finalize it soon.
The new contract addresses concerns about a disproportionate number of black students being arrested or cited by school officers. It would require quarterly meetings to review police data broken down by race, gender and who initiated a police response.
Board member Ali Muldrow, who voted against the contract with Ananda Mirilli and Nicki Vander Meulen, said she’s not against the concept of police in schools, but rather the high rate at which black students are arrested or cited.
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We get her point. But little evidence suggests officers are targeting minority students because of their race. All of the school officers are black or Latina, serving as strong role models. More likely, the numbers reflect broader disparities and challenges in society, such as poverty, unemployment, access to health care and housing. These factors also contribute to the achievement gap, in which fewer minority students are proficient in core subjects and fewer graduate. These disparities can contribute to behavior at school that leads to discipline from staff and interactions with police.
The School District must do more to help struggling students improve in the classroom, including hiring more minority teachers, highlighting paths to success and engaging parents.
Yet all students deserve a safe school. This year alone, 13 school shootings involving injury or death have occurred in the United States, according to a tally by Education Week. (And when it comes to mass shootings at schools, most perpetrators are white, not black.) Having a police officer at school helps reassure parents, teachers and students that they will be defended. A trained and armed officer, for example, stopped a former student from shooting up prom at Antigo High School in 2015.
Just as important, officers in Madison schools get to know students and staff so that they can better understand and defuse conflicts. This community policing may actually reduce the likelihood of citations and arrests, as Chief Koval has noted.
If the School Board does seek to remove one of the officers from East, La Follette, Memorial or West high schools in the future, the affected school should be given forewarning and input. We trust the School Board would conduct a broad survey of parents, students and staff to better gauge opinion, something it has so far failed to do.
A small yet vocal group of protesters has been disrupting School Board meetings to demand that school officers be removed. We doubt that sentiment enjoys much support in the larger community.
The board’s vote this week was responsible, encouraging and welcome.