The Madison School Board’s ad-hoc committee on Educational Resource Officers is one-third of the way through its 15-month process to review, evaluate, and make recommendations about the use of police in schools.
At a Wednesday meeting, its fifth, committee members shared their feelings about the role of EROs, discipline disparities faced by students of color and what happens next if police are removed from Madison’s four main high schools.
So far, committee members have learned about the current role of EROs in Madison’s high schools and researched other models in use across the country. They’ve also heard from community members, Madison Metropolitan School District administrators and school staff about their views on EROs.
Moving forward, the committee will visit the high schools, evaluate more recent data and finalize recommendations before members present a summary report to the Madison School Board in May of 2018.
The Madison School Board solicited applications from community members in December 2016 and assembled the committee in January. The 12-member committee includes Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney, Common Wealth Development CEO Justice Castañeda, former LaFollette High School ERO Greg Rossetti and three school board members — Anna Moffit, TJ Mertz and Dean Loumos.
Since most of the earlier meetings were geared towards listening and learning, Wednesday was the first time committee members discussed, at length, their thoughts about EROs in Madison schools and their initial recommendations. Committee members also questioned how much influence their recommendations would have over the Madison School Board.
“It is unclear to me how much weight the recommendations that this committee makes will have on what actually happens outside of this committee,” said member Abra Vigna.
School Board member Dean Loumos assured her and the rest of the committee that the full board would seriously consider the committee’s recommendations.
“This committee is going to make a recommendation to the full board, and there are three of us sitting here,” he said. "There is a pretty good chance that what this committee decides is what’s going to happen.”
Some committee members expressed frustration about the process not allowing many opportunities for discussion up to this point.
“As an attorney, I usually get to argue things out and get it resolved and I am having a hard time with this learning process being very lengthy and not getting the opportunity for discussion,” said member Payal Khandhar.
“We are still scratching the surface. For me, that’s frustrating,” Harrington-McKinney said. “I want to be able to dig down, and I thought we would be further along than we are.”
In an interview with the Cap Times following Wednesday’s meeting, Mara McGlynn, restorative practices coach at MMSD, said that she understands the committee members’ frustrations, but encouraged them to “trust the process” in order to achieve the desired results.
“Quite frankly, it is a slow process to build shared understanding and trust and typically people are frustrated with that,” she said. “When we get there, we will be able to truly share where the recommendations came from in a meaningful way, which is particularly important for this committee.”
Committee members talked about the racial disparities that exist in MMSD around school discipline. Some committee members responded specifically to concerns of young members of Freedom Inc., who shared their demands with the board during the public comment section at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting.
Their three demands: no police in schools, community control over school discipline, and resources poured into youth advocates, counselors, and teachers to work with youth of color in a culturally-specific way. Several of the speakers were current students or recent graduates of Madison schools.
Abra Vigna said “she feels heavy” in her role on the committee trying to balance the seemingly competing interests of teachers who have expressed a desire to feel safe in their classrooms, police officers who are good people, but agents of a system that adversely affects students of color, and the negative experiences students shared about their interactions with police.
“My child will one day be enrolled within the Madison Metropolitan School District, but she will likely not face the same consequences of whatever decision that we make,” said Abra Vigna. “I find it more compelling to listen deeply to the throngs of people who are directly impacted by it.”
“As I sit here, I want to hold the space for black and brown kids,” Harrington-McKinney said. “I am still asking myself how in the world can the school [district] and the [other] developers of the contract not look at it for 18 years. I don't understand that.”
A May 2015 report about school safety and discipline from the U.S. Department of Education showed that in the 2013-2014 school year, 41 percent of public schools across the country have some form of sworn law enforcement officer on campus at least once a week. Fifty-six percent of districts with over 1,000 students employ a full-time school resource officer.
In an interview with the Cap Times following the meeting, youth activists said they wanted to share their perspectives with the committee, particularly as it relates to students of color and school discipline.
“It is important to shift power to youth in our communities so we can actually have student-of-color led things in our schools,” said Peyton, 19. “We want to kick out cops in our schools so we have more resources for students of color so they won’t be harassed or surveilled when they go into classes or in the hallways.”
In the 2015-2016 school year, MMSD reported 107 arrests on or near high school properties. 84 percent of people arrested were African-American.
During the same time period, police issued 70 citations, 60 of which went to African-Americans. Black students are 18 percent of the total MMSD student population.
Castañeda said the committee’s charge boils down to whether or not they are comfortable with EROs having the ability to use lethal force against students in Madison schools.
“Why don’t we just all say ‘when we send children to school, we might have to kill them?’ Let’s just be honest about the society that we live in and make that decision,” he said.
“Marines at war are not allowed to kill children. It is not a question, it is not up to discretion...I don’t understand why the rules of engagement at war are more stringent than the rules for police in schools?”
Castañeda is a former Marine.
Committee members also had the chance to share their preliminary thoughts on recommendations regarding the ERO contract.
School Board member Anna Moffit suggested placing unarmed, plainclothes officers in schools to “act as a liaison” between the schools and the police department.
“I am not comfortable with people having firearms in our schools. It is against the rules for all of our students, so I think it sends really mixed and confusing messages,” she said.
Committee member Tyrone Bell suggested more training for officers and cameras in schools.
As committee members continued to share alternatives to the current model, Rossetti encouraged them to think about what structures need to exist in schools to ensure a successful transition from EROs.
“If this is something that the community wants, we should start talking about what our schools are going to look like without police officers.”
School Board member TJ Mertz echoed Rossetti’s comments.
“Even if we vote as a majority to recommend removing EROs from schools, I think we should offer (alternatives) to say ‘they shouldn’t have guns, they shouldn’t be in uniforms, or able to issue citations for non-violent offenses,’” Mertz said.
“Putting those things in whatever report we do and having people engaged in the process to vet those ideas is really important.”