What Educational Values and Beliefs Underpin a Decision to have Armed School Resource Officers?

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This article was previously published in Smile Politely

On December 17, 2019, the Urbana Board of Education (BOE) signed an intergovernmental agreement to approve funding of two full-time armed police officers (called School Resource Officers, or SROs)—one at the middle school and one at the high school. The yearly cost to the school district is $321,300.

To date, the BOE has not collected any evidence that this presence returns any value for students. According to Section 8B of the contract, the SRO Program is to be formally evaluated two years after being implemented, and then every year thereafter. Furthermore, the BOE does not have any planned method to formally evaluate the SRO program’s effectiveness. There are no measures for assessing the effectiveness of the program, nor have there been any indicated plans to disseminate findings to the public.

The overarching theme of the intergovernmental contract is that the SROs are hired by and fall under the direction of the Urbana Police Department (UPD). The cost breakdown, received via a Freedom of Information Act request, reveals that education dollars are not only paying the annual salaries of the two officers ($131,000 per officer), but also covering uniforms and guns (a one-time cost of $7,000-plus and a yearly cost of $2,000 per officer), $1,500 to spend on annual professional development per officer, as well as a one-time payment for a vehicle ($40,000) plus an annual vehicle maintenance fee per officer of $6,000.

This contract does not serve the best interests of the school district, and the costs are not a responsible use of education tax dollars. Additionally, there are no plans for Urbana School District 116 (USD116) to be reimbursed the $275,000 spent, despite the COVID-19 pandemic affecting schools being open.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent or more of the academic year for any reason, including excused and unexcused absences and suspensions; based on a 180-day school year, that means a student would have to miss about 18 days per year. Urbana High School’s chronic absenteeism rate is 53 percent; USD116’s chronic absenteeism is 36 percent; the state of Illinois sits at 18 percent. Time spent learning is the single best predictor of positive academic outcomes.

Eighty-eight percent of total suspensions in 2019–2020 were of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students. Eighty-nine percent of out-of-school suspensions are of BIPOC students. The student body breakdown of USD116 is 37 percent Black, 31 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian and 1 percent American Indian; 10 percent are multi-racial. Fifty-four percent of total suspensions were of Black students, and 52 percent of out-of-school suspensions were of Black students; this further illustrates that Black students are being suspended at higher rates than their white peers. Education can only fulfill its potential as the great equalizer—a force that can overcome differences in privilege and background—when we work to ensure that students are in school every day and receive the supports they need to learn and thrive.

Although federal and state laws require educators to suspend, expel, or refer a student to law enforcement for certain offenses, many educators choose to employ such harsh measures for more trivial matters, such as minor disturbances in the classroom. The connection between academic underachievement and student involvement in the justice system needs to be highlighted and addressed; when students are not engaged in their studies nor graduate from high school and obtain the skills necessary to be contributors to their communities, they are more likely to also be involved in the justice system. In Urbana in 2019, there were 252 juvenile arrests, both within and outside of the school setting; 84 percent of those juvenile arrests were of Black youth.

USD116 passed a one-page “Resolution on Commitment to Racial Equity” on November 20, 2018. Yet when considering the addition of SROs, very little was done to evaluate the presence of armed officers on BIPOC students. There must be a cost/benefit analysis conducted which is shared with the public. Minimizing trauma and harm should be the intent; the program should have been assessed prior to implementation to determine the impacts of two, full-time armed SROs on BIPOC students.

In USD116, only four percent of Black and 13 percent of Hispanic students “meet or exceed” mathematics performance levels Yet 34 percent of white students “meet or exceed” mathematics performance levels.

Urbana High School

What Educational Values and Beliefs Underpin a Decision to have SROs in Our Schools?

Many in education feel the pressure from outside, or above, to implement policy and react in a knee-jerk way. To relieve the pressure, they do what they are told or use anecdotal information to support and introduce policy without asking why they should. They pay lip service to the policy; the words are spoken, the paperwork is completed, the policies are written. It all “looks good,” and the words are spoken in meetings. And so, we revolve on a merry-go-round of policies and words paying lip-service to the intended improvement, but within the walls of the school and classroom, little changes.

Policing was Never Meant to Solve All Problems.

SROs do not have specialized training in adolescent or childhood development. They are not mental health experts, social workers with licensed degrees, psychologists, trauma-informed educators, or school counselors. SROs are not educators. To be clear, SROs are career law enforcement officers, with arresting authority, and a license to carry a weapon (paid for with education dollars). Police officers patrol school hallways just like they do city streets. There are better, safer, and cheaper alternatives.

The BOE must refocus on the students and their needs, not fund armed police in Urbana schools. It must end the intergovernmental agreement with the Urbana Police Department and remove SROs from Urbana’s public schools.

There are several Urbana BOE seats open for election this spring: Districts 1, 3, 5 and 7.

Update: Mayor Marlin has invited me to a meeting with herself and Lt. Seraphin (date TBD) to discuss better ways forward as she “acknowledge[s] and share[s] the community’s concern about the alarming over-representation of black youth in school discipline situations, academic disparities, interactions with law enforcement, and the criminal justice system.” Furthermore, the American Civil Liberties Union has indicated that they wish to work together on the issues of policing in the CU community, including removing SROs from schools.

Hailing from Illinois and residing, dually, here and in Australia since 2014, Ameena is a higher education instructor and Master of Education (Research) student at Deakin University. Her interests are in assessment design and feedback—as well as equitable education and education reform.

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