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Madison School Board taking a closer look at police officers in schools

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Madison police officer Ken Mosley is the educational resource officer at La Follette High School. 

PHOTO BY SAIYNA BASHIR

Michelle Hicks fought back tears as she told the Madison School Board how police were called in when her daughter refused to leave an atrium area at East High School.

The girl, who has autism, phoned her mother for help in coping with anxiety over attending a class, something specifically allowed under a pre-arranged plan that also called for providing her a quiet alternative to a classroom if she needed one, Hicks said. But school officials didn’t wait for Hicks to help her daughter work through the panic, Hicks told the board in January.

Instead, the principal called in the police officer assigned to the school and things escalated quickly, she said.

“I had to listen over the phone as my daughter was tackled to the ground as she screamed for help, then was handcuffed and removed from the school,” Hicks said. The girl was arrested and brought to jail, fined more than $600, had to appear in court, and was suspended for three days, her mother said.

“You guys need to do better for our children,” Hicks said to the board.

The incident is one of a handful of cases in recent years that convinced TJ Mertz that he and fellow school board members should take a closer look and get the public’s opinion before renewing a contract with the Madison Police Department that places officers full time in four Madison Metropolitan School District high schools.

The fundamental concern is whether police involvement in school discipline incidents is “criminalizing behavior that doesn’t need to be and putting kids in the criminal justice system when they don’t have to be,” Mertz said.

The school district police services contract overall conforms to American Civil Liberties Union guidelines, Mertz said. But he wants to make sure that officers working at East, West, Memorial and La Follette high schools follow that guidance in practice.

“Let’s make sure that if there are opportunities for improvement, we take advantage of them and if people in the community have ideas, let’s give them an opportunity to communicate with us,” Mertz said.

He would like to see more regular, detailed reporting on police officer contacts in the schools, and to assess whether more training of officers is needed.

In response to school board member concerns, a three-year contract with the Madison Police Department for the hiring of educational resource officers at a cost of $356,000 in the first year was pulled from the board’s July 25 agenda. The contract will be discussed at a school board meeting on Aug. 8 at 6 p.m.

Use of excessive force by police is a hot-button issue in cities across the country, including Madison. The fatal shooting of 19-year-old Tony Robinson by a Madison Police officer in 2015 and incidents like the tackling and tasering of 18-year-old Genele Laird by police outside East Towne mall in June led Madison City Council members to demand an extensive review of police practices and training that could cost as much as $400,000.

Police presence in the nation’s schools and practices that involve them in discipline also are under scrutiny. In St. Paul, for example, school district officials are calling for a less forceful role for officers in the schools after employee Philando Castile was killed by police during a traffic stop on July 6.

School-employed police officers date back to the 1950s, but their role evolved from one of community liaison to enforcement over the decades.

“The original point of (police in the schools) was to give young people the opportunity to interact with officers in a positive way, and there is some reason to think this can be accomplished in some places,” Emily Owens, a criminology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, told The Atlantic. “But of course, having an officer means that there will be an increased likelihood that law enforcement is involved in what would otherwise be a disciplinary event.”

MMSD began hiring police officers in 1998. When the school district revised its discipline code three years ago, officials worked with the police department to make sure educational resource officers, as they are called, were trained not to get involved in disciplinary encounters unless specifically requested by a school staff member because police involvement tends to escalate students’ defiance, said Luis Yudice, a former MPD captain and coordinator of school safety and security for MMSD. Officers also are trained to employ alternatives to arrest when they do become involved in school incidents, he said.

“In the past, I acknowledge that EROs not only in Madison, but school districts across the country, were used inappropriately in school incidents and many ended up in arrests. The first response must be by the school, not the police,” said Yudice, a co-chair of the city committee overseeing an independent review of police operations approved by the City Council.

Asked about Hicks’ allegations, Yudice said he could not speak to individual cases because of student confidentiality laws. But he added: “We don’t do everything perfectly. There may be times when we make mistakes. But in each case we review what happened and if administrators made a bad call, we openly acknowledge that.”

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He said the existence of a few possible incidents where police officers became involved when they should not have, “is different from saying there is a pattern of abuse.”

School Board member Anna Moffit is especially concerned that police officers in the schools get adequate training in responding to students with special needs

“We are serving kids who have more intensive needs and different needs from what we would have seen 10 years ago,” Moffit said.

Research is providing information about what schools need to do to work successfully with children with trauma history, mental health needs and developmental disabilities, she said. Those findings have to be reflected in training for all school personnel, she said.

Yudice said there is annual training for school district personnel involved in security in the schools, which includes not just the four police officers at the high schools, but 27 unarmed security assistants assigned to high schools and middle schools.

Their training includes such topics as crisis intervention, development of the adolescent brain, and restorative justice practices that allow people in conflict to hear each other out to resolve differences, Yudice said. Last year there was training from members of the Gay Straight Alliance on issues affecting the LGBTQ community, he said.

Moffit also serves on the city’s Education Committee, which is seeking data about the function of police officers in MMSD schools.

Yudice said that EROs provide the school board with an annual report on the number of students receiving citations, and the number referred to truancy court or arrested and referred to juvenile court.

A second report reflects officers’ casual encounters with students at school, from interacting in the halls to counseling or providing other support. One officer, for example, is an adviser to the West High School Black Student Union, Yudice said.

That activity also is reflected in an annual report that he said school board members have not requested.

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