CHAMPAIGN – After two hours of public comment from a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people Monday night, the Champaign school board approved putting full-time police officers in its middle and high schools.
The school resource officer program will begin next fall, pending approval from the Champaign City Council at its meeting tonight.
The five board members voting for the program said they were doing so to ensure the safety of students and staff.
"Our staff is crying out for this," said board member Scott Anderson. "I can't fathom not voting for this."
But Reginald Alston and Minosca Alcantara said they had too many questions about how the program would work to support it Monday night.
"I'm not prepared to support this for a host of reasons," Alston said, including his uncertainty about the chain of command for the officers, how their performance would be measured, the composition of the committee that would interview applicants and potential cost increases for the program. He and Alcantara also said the school district and the police department should have all the operating procedures for the officers worked out before asking the board to approve the program.
Alston also questioned whether the public had sufficient input on the program, in spite of Monday's meeting and a meeting a week ago at which numerous community members spoke. He noted residents who heard about the program at town hall meetings urged the district to go slow and involve the community in developing the program.
School board President Margie Skirvin said she hadn't seen any issue with more input from the public during her time on the board.
Alcantara wanted more analysis of the problems at the schools.
"Nobody is telling me this is urgent besides the Central parents," she said. "I don't have any data that shows me how much worse this situation is than it used to be."
She also questioned whether the district should spend $200,000 per year when 2 percent of the students were causing problems.
"No amount of money can be put on a life," replied Assistant Superintendent Ecomet Burley, who oversees discipline issues for the district.
He said the staff at Central High School unsuccessfully tried three times to work with the students who eventually fought at the school last fall, slightly injuring several staff members. The district has had almost 50 expulsions so far this year, half of them for physical confrontations in which teachers or staff members were pushed while trying to intervene, Burley said.
"Unless we address this, the schools will continue to be considered unsafe at the secondary level," he said.
Many of those speaking Monday night were teachers or parents who supported the school resource officers.
"Why do deans, who have nothing more than a walkie-talkie and a set of keys, get called to deal with (fights)?" asked Ondine Gross, a psychologist at the high schools. "They have master's degrees as educators. This isn't their area of expertise. I want people at the schools who do this for a living and know what to do."
Phil Van Ness, a parent and former board member, noted Urbana has had school resource officers for 15 years.
"Trust me, we cannot be accused of rushing to judgment on this issue," he said. "We are way behind everyone else. The resolution of this issue is as clear as your obligation to ensure the safety of each and every child in the school district."
But others echoed the comments made to the board a week ago. They were concerned that the behavior of students would be criminalized with police in the schools, and they worried about having officers carrying guns in the buildings. They also objected to police acting as counselors to students, saying social workers should have that role.
"I'm hoping (my son) will graduate with a high school diploma, not a felony," said Nicole Causely.
Several people said they were distressed to see the matter play out as a racial issue.
After the vote, community activist Imani Bazzell said she objected not to the school resource officers, but to what she said is a lack of strategic planning in addressing discipline issues.
"There is a difference between presenting a laundry list to the community and a strategic plan," she said. "This was all emotional, equating safety with school resource officers, but no real research was presented tonight that if we have fighting, here are five things that work. I'm afraid people are going to have a false sense of security. I want real safety, not imaginary safety."