City Council Reconsiders Then Tables SRO Agreement with School District

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By: 
Cameron Bren

MIDDLETON–The Middleton Common Council tabled an agreement with the Middleton Cross Plains Area School District (MCPASD) to provide police officers at Middleton High School (MHS) and Kromrey Middle School after voting to reconsider it. The agreement for the SRO (Student Resource Officer) program has come under scrutiny since its approval by the school board at the June 22 by community members, students, parents and alumni who are calling for suspending the program while it is reviewed. 

During the council meeting two members from the School Community Partnership committee presented a plan to suspend and review the program. School district administrators and Middleton police presented on the history of the program, its benefits and a review plan to be completed by January.

District parent, restorative justice practitioner for Dane County Restorative Justice Court and prison volunteer Heidi Ropa and Youth Center Director and MHS 2006 graduate Gabrielle Hinahara say community input and review of the program is needed before it can move forward.

Hinahara said the modified agreement passed by the school board is not satisfactory and the council should vote to table the item until it is rectified. 

“Unfortunately the language of the amendment is extremely vague and does not guarantee any parent, student or community engagement in the process,” she said. 

Hinahara suggested the district review the program in the first three months of school while instruction is held virtually before revisiting the agreement. 

The district and school board failed at seeking input and being transparent, Hinahara said. Ropa pointed to letters sent to the board signed by all district social workers and another from the West Middleton Equity Team calling for input and review, which were not referred to at the board meeting. 

Hinahara said in addition the board received a letter with over 700 signatures from students, parents, alumni, and community members calling for the district to end the SRO program and redirect the funds to social workers, nurses, counselors and psychologists, which were also not referred to at the meeting. 

“There are now three rounds of letters from the community speaking against the SRO contract that have never been read at a school board meeting, none of these groups have been invited to speak and recent school board meetings have had no opportunity for public comment,” Hinahara said. 

Ropa said the district is prioritizing SRO funding, despite cutting down to one social worker position. The district did not fill a newly created social emotional learning coach position and a three year restorative justice pilot program was put on hold and the position supporting the program was dissolved, she said. 

“All of these approaches are proactive rather than punitive and responsive,” Ropa said. 

During the presentation from the district administration and Middleton Police Department. MCPASD Director of Equity and Student Achievement Percy Brown thanked the council for holding the space to have such a courageous conversation.

Brown said he found himself in a complicated position as a district administrator and Black man from Madison. He noted that he has personal relationships with many of the alumni who testified during the public comment period and commended their efforts. Their arguments and claims were painful to hear as an indictment on the district, Brown said, but he is sitting in that pain.

He said he was not in a position to call for ending or continuing the SRO program but pointed out the importance of addressing other challenges Black students face such as low reading proficiency.

“If seven out of 10 of our Black students are not able to read they are going to find themselves in the criminal justice system anyway,” Brown said.

Brown said moving forward he would like to see the district and community take the six-step approach for social change laid out by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. All parties need to find common ground and reconcile with each other, he said.

He noted that regardless of whether people believe “white backlash” is real, that is an unintended consequence that he takes seriously.

MCPASD Technology Director Jim Blodgett acknowledged there was a decrease in school social workers but an overall increase in school psychologists with two full-time at each school.

“We wish we could increase our schools’ social worker staffing but unfortunately we are not able to this year,” Blodgett said. He added that the district is now offering more student mental health services.

Blodgett said SROs are critical in the district’s active threat training and crisis response planning. 

Former police chief Chuck Foulke, who was the first school resource officer in 1984, pushed back on the school-to-prison pipeline narrative. He said under his watch he reviewed every physical arrest made in the schools and stated they were always a last resort and completely justified.

Foulke said officers in schools normalize interactions with law enforcement and build positive relationships with students of color.

Chief Troy Hellenbrand said SROs receive numerous hours of specialized training for the program. The SROs serve as role models, mentors, teachers and a broader community resource.

He said he still gets calls from former students from his time as an SRO 20 years ago.

Hellenbrand pointed to two cases in Wisconsin last year in which SROs were involved in mitigating harm from students towards themselves or others. He said there are likely many violent incidents prevented each year by SROs which are not recorded or reported on.

MCPASD Superintendent Dana Monogue said the concerns raised about the SRO program deserve thorough consideration. She said the district can do much better with community engagement, but needs to develop other mechanisms to create spaces for conversations to happen. Monogue said for the district to adequately fulfill the review they will need time to engage with all stakeholders.

She said the evaluation will be completed by January with recommendations presented to the board at that time. It will include surveys and focus groups for students, families and staff. The SRO contact logs will be reviewed and citation records broken down by demographics. The district will also begin generating monthly reports and study peer-reviewed research on SROs and alternative models.

Sgt. Tyler Loether, a former SRO at MHS, said some of the best relationships he formed were with students that were subject to arrest, citation or discipline through the school. 

He argued that having an officer embedded in the school creates better outcomes than if a patrol officer is called into the school for an incident.

Loether pointed to studies from University of Tennessee and Mississippi State University that demonstrate SROs do not criminalize minor behavioral issues and are more lenient than patrol officers. 

He said the SRO serves as a resource for sexual assault complaints and in reacting to active threats.

Kenneth Chung, the current SRO at MHS, said he builds relationships with at-risk students. He said he finds it ironic that the college bound, advanced placement students who testified during the public comment are speaking on behalf of the at-risk youth that come to his office because they feel ostracized by those same students.

Chung said the reality is high-risk youth are being bussed in from certain neighborhoods to a better school district to get them around model students.

“That policy doesn’t work if we don’t have things in place to get these students to interact,” Chung said.

He said the district has failed students who are entering high school with a fourth grade reading level.

“Why were these students left in the hallways to roam and in the offices with fidget toys until the new administration and I stepped in?” Chung asked.

The current Kromrey SRO Julie Carbon said she teaches students about gang resistance and avoiding drugs and the students teach her about understanding and forgiveness. She said her goal is not to punish but to teach and redirect.

Ald. Katy Nelson asked Chief Hellenbrand if the three year term for SROs could be extended. Hellenbrand said because it is a high-demand position the department finds three years to be the ideal length.

Nelson followed up with Hellenbrand asking if the department has recently made announcements or community outreach to immigrant families to ensure they don’t enforce immigration laws. Hellenbrand said it was last done two years ago. Nelson said it should be done again so those families feel safe having police in schools. 

Ald. Robert Burke said it has been extremely helpful to have more perspectives presenting but said it needs to be turned into conversations.

“This is not a conversation, this is an opening statement, the conversations are where a lot of the hard work needs to happen and where people can really stop and listen but also ask questions,” Burke said.

Ald. Susan West made a motion to table the agreement.

Mayor Gurdip Brar clarified the intent of the motion.

“The assumption here is that the school board will go through the total process of evaluation before they bring it back,” Brar said. 

The motion passed unanimously.

 

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