Officers getting job done, but Champaign school board has questions

CHAMPAIGN — A program that embeds police officers in five Champaign schools is on deck to get a thorough vetting this month as officials try to strike a delicate balance between safe schools and introducing students to the criminal justice system at a young age.

Champaign police contend that the number of arrests in schools and police reports are way down from eight years ago, when the program began, and school resource officers have created a better learning environment for students. But school officials say they have a few questions and concerns they want addressed before they renew their contract for the program this month.

The Champaign school board is scheduled to hear an initial report on the school resource officer program when it meets at 6 p.m. Monday in the Mellon Administrative Center. The contract between the school district and the city is scheduled for a vote on June 30.

The history behind the school resource officer program is a mildly violent one: In 2005, Champaign police officers started working overtime at Centennial and Central high schools and Columbia Elementary School as a direct response to increases in the severity of fights that were breaking out in those schools. The fights were so intense that teachers were getting injured as they tried to break up those fights.

By 2006, those overtime assignments grew into a full-fledged school resource officer program. Five officers have been assigned to five Champaign schools — the two high schools and Jefferson, Franklin and Edison middle schools. The school district covers the full cost of two of those officers, and the city of Champaign pays for the other three.

Kellie Anderson of Champaign, whose two daughters graduated from Central in 2011 and this spring, doesn't want to see the district curtail the program.

Her perspective: "Do whatever it takes to keep my kids safe."

"I think it's a great thing," she said. "It's not like they have a SWAT team surrounding the building. The officer is there in case of an emergency. When you have that size of a building, in busy parts of the community, I think it's important to have that presence in the school."

Deputy Police Chief Troy Daniels said that's what has happened.

"We have heard repeatedly from administrators in the buildings and teachers that there is a better quality of life in the building and the atmosphere is more conducive to learning since the school resource officers have been in the building," Daniels said.

The data would seem to back up that claim. Since the 2005-06 school year, which was the year before the program began, police calls have dropped from 769 to 52 this past school year. Student arrests initially grew as police officers were embedded in the school — from 56 to 84 in the 2008-09 school year — but they have since dropped to 21 this past year.

"I think that, the longer that we're in the building, the closer we work with the administrators and the more understanding that we have as far as which group, whether administrators or officers, should handle a situation," Daniels said. "We do our best to divert kids from the criminal justice system whenever possible. However, sometimes arrests are necessary."

Arrests tend to occur where multiple offenders injure one victim or sometimes when a teacher or administrator is struck by a student, Daniels said. Other cases include larger amounts of drugs, and sometimes police suspect a student might be dealing in the schools. Students' history of behavior is also considered in making arrests.

But even more important might be what does not show up in the numbers.

"Absolutely there have been numerous fights that have been minimized or eliminated because the school resource officer has been able to find out about a future fight and has been able to head it off before it occurs," Daniels said.

The data shows, however, that school resource officers are arresting black students at much higher rates than students of other races.

School board member John Bambenek said he continues to hear some of the "traditional concerns." That is "the contention when SROs were first brought in, there's tension between the police department and various minority communities."

Among the officers' 21 arrests last year, 19 were black students, one was white and one was Latino. In the program's eight-year history, police have arrested nearly eight times more black students compared to white students.

Daniels said those numbers mirror the school district's suspension rates, and that police officers are making decisions based on the severity of the incidents only.

"Champaign police officers are making these decisions based on behavior, not based on race," Daniels said.

But, he points out, the arrest numbers are the exception — generally, students are not doing anything wrong.

"I want to stress that the vast majority of children of all races are doing what they're supposed to do while in the classroom and behaving appropriately," Daniels said.

Anderson has seen Officer Brandon Thomas interact with "all different kinds of kids" at Central in a positive way.

"I think the police officers are trying very hard, and people in the community are trying hard, to build a positive relationship between our young people and the police department, and I think the school resource officers in the school make a really good contribution to that," she said. "They're a police officer that the kids see every single day. They go to games. They're at events. They actually build a relationship with these young people. And I think that's really positive."

A number of school board members agree that the program has made a lot of positive changes, but at least a few still are not totally comfortable with it. School board president Laurie Bonnett points out that the police officers are employed by the city, not the school district — that leaves school officials with little say if parents have complaints about decisions the police officers make.

"These are people that we have no control over," Bonnett said.

Bonnett and some other school board members are wondering if there's a way to make school resource officers more accountable to principals. That way, school officials and parents would have some recourse if they don't agree with some of the decisions being made.

"I would say that there are some areas for improvement to work in concert of our principals," Bonnett said.

Daniels said that police officials always want to improve collaboration and communication, and he thinks they have come a long way in the time that the program has existed. But sworn police officers will always have the authority to make an arrest where a crime has occurred, he said.

"The school resource officers already collaborate with school administrators to determine how situations are handled," Daniels said. "Champaign Police Department wants to continually improve our understanding of the best ways to handle juveniles when it comes to school discipline versus criminal sanctions. However, the school resource officers will always have the authority to make an arrest when they believe it is necessary."

School officials put together an evaluation committee comprising board members, district administrators and community members to take a close look at the program and recommend any changes that might be made.

Minnie Pearson, a member of that committee, said the program has generally had a good effect. But members will suggest how they think the police officers might get to better know the students they police.

"Before we had the officers, there were more behavior incidents. With those officers, there are less. It has gone down each and every year," Pearson said. "And the children get to see police officers in a different light. They bond. They have connections. They feel comfortable with them."

The committee surveyed 1,145 students and 223 staff members to gauge the officers' effectiveness in the schools. Of the students surveyed, 37 percent said they do not know the name of the officer assigned to their school. But 62 percent said they agreed or strongly agreed that the officers have made their schools safer, and only 10.4 percent disagreed.

Nearly 68 percent said they felt they were treated respectfully by the officers, and only 7.2 percent disagreed. Two-thirds of black students and staff members surveyed said they felt they were treated respectfully, and 11 percent disagreed.

Pearson said that the committee looked at all the pros and cons of the program and will make recommendations as to how to improve relationships between the officers and the students. A better relationship means better communication, she said.

"Just get up close and personal in the classroom," Pearson said.

School board member Jamar Brown said he's heard people talking about the numbers of kids being arrested and being sent to jail and thinks the real data needs to get out to the public.

That being said, he thinks the program is worth another look.

"I think right now there's a consensus to continue the school resource officer program, but the district is always looking to make sure we're always on track," Brown said.

Brown and Bonnett both said last week they have heard discussions about whether it might be better to replace police officers with security guards in the schools. Bonnett said that's not a formal option on the table at the moment, but she thinks it's a "reasonable question" given that police officers report to their own supervisors and not school officials.

Daniels said he thinks that would not be a good idea. School resource officers are specially trained in a number of facets involved in working in a school, juvenile law and use of force. A security guard is not, he said, and police would still need to be called to schools when a major event has occurred.

"They have been to advanced juvenile law training as well as advanced school resource officer training," Daniels said. "They are seasoned veterans who know the district, the school culture, the students and their families. They are well-equipped to appropriately handle the situations that occur in the schools."

Cost is another issue. The Champaign school district pays the entire cost of two of those five officers. That includes salary, benefits and pension costs, vehicle and other miscellaneous costs — a total of $270,163 this past school year and $291,769 next year.

"It's growing," Bambenek said. "It is what it is. We have no control over it."

"It's a lot of money," Bonnett said. "We have to be prudent with our dollars. This SRO program has developed over years, and you always want to look at something to see if there's a better way to do it."

Anderson understands "the way the world is today," that bad things can happen anywhere.

"Drugs, underage drinking, fighting — those are always going to be an issue when it comes to young people. They have been for decades. It's not a new problem," she said. "I think we all wish that our schools could be these storybook places where bad things don't happen, and all kids come from fantastically positive things. But they don't. And I would rather err on the side of safety, than wish that we had."

News-Gazette staff writer Julie Wurth contributed to this report.

A helpful resource?

Champaign police contend that police calls and arrest data show that the school resource officer program has made schools safer since it began in the 2006-2007 school year.

School            Police     Student    White    African-American  Latino     Asian

year                 calls       arrests   arrests      arrests                arrests  arrests

2005-2006     769           56        Unknown   Unknown           Unknown  Unknown

2006-2007      612          74              8             64                       1            1

2007-2008      473          82            12             69                        0           1

2008-2009      148          84              8             73                        2           1

2009-2010      151          46              7             37                        1           1

2010-2011       109         35              3             32                        0           0

2011-2012         86         41              3             37                        1           0

2012-2013         64         34              4            26                         0           4

2013-2014         52         21              1            19                         1           0

SOURCE: Champaign Police Department

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fuddrules wrote on June 08, 2014 at 8:06 am

Unless this is simply kowtowing to a small segment of Champaign residents - they'd be nutso to replace the SRO.  Security guards?  Any reasonable person would only be joking about that switch.

Does the school board really want to control police officers? 

I would believe this is all for show under most school districts, however, it is the Champaign School District we are talking about.  You never know with that crew.

45solte wrote on June 08, 2014 at 8:06 am

"These are people that we have no control over," Bonnett said.


So? It's not their fault that students commit crimes and break laws. Parents of victims and staff members can file their own police reports independent of SROs and the schools have no business trying to control the recourse citizens are entitled to, by (real-world) law. The majority who don't commit crime in school need protection from the minority who do. The people who majority-fund Unit 4 schools probably support the continued presence of SROs as opposed to a vocal minority of community members. Consider this when you want tax-payers on-board with your grand plans. Guess Bonnett and company think their 'rule' trumps the rule of law. Mitigating circumstances, etc. are dealt with in Juvie. Early intervention in the criminal justice system is likely much better than 'excusing' it away during the juvenile years and setting students up for first-contact at the more serious age (criminal justice system-wise) of 18+.  If the board votes the SROs out, the board should be voted out if there is some means to pursue a vote of non-confidence. And they can kiss their grand school plans good-bye. Tax payers aren't generally on board with a big property tax increase and adding lawlessness (criminal incidents dealt with--in a lax manner, if at all--internally) to the schools isn't going to help that cause. Get out there board members, before June 30th, and ask a WIDE cross-section of the people you represent what they think of getting rid of SROs in the schools. Most people probably don't even know this is up for a vote.

45solte wrote on June 08, 2014 at 11:06 am

COMMIT A CRIME. Get arrested. Go to jail. All at an early age with a little time to turn things around with the support of a school system and community programs and maybe reach 18 with an education. I guess Jamar Brown thinks the arrest/crime data are going to upset people. But, I think he's got it wrong for the majority. I think people will be pleased to see that crime is treated for what it is, crime. There is a system just for juveniles. The fact that the crime is witnessed and dealt with directly by the criminal justice system is not the problem. The problem is the crime, itself. Stop the misplaced blame game already. If it happened anywhere else in public, the consequence is the involvement of law enforcement. Why special circumstances for schools, particularly when schools have in loco parentis status? They have a direct responsibility to ensure the safety of students portal-to-portal (according to district policy, I think).


 


"It's a lot of money," Bonnett said. "We have to be prudent with our dollars. This SRO program has developed over years, and you always want to look at something to see if there's a better way to do it."


LOL   Please walk out those words, Ms. Bonnett, during new Central school discussions.


ETA, as another poster notes, I may have misinterpreted what Jamar Brown meant. I am sorry if I have. I will have to go back and look at an earlier article. I thought he had expressed concern about students being involved with the criminal justice at a young age and supported the exploring of alternatives to SROs.  I am also confused by some of the writing of the article, I guess. 'Several' board members (had concerns about SROs?) means who? Aren't there only 6 board members? What constitutes 'several' of a group of 6 and who are they? So a committee (of who?) was formed (when?) and there is to be a vote in a couple of weeks on the issue. Were a cross-section of property tax-payers surveyed? As a property tax-payer, I say money well spent (when the issue of salary is brought up in the article). 


Earlier NG article:


‘...comminuty concern has led to talk of possibly replacing the officers with security guards.  Brown said one positive of having the guards would be that more student discipline issues would be handled at a school level and not at a police level.  That, he said, would help avoid students having a criminal record at such a young age.’


http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2014-06-05/updated-champaign-scho...

Iampbf wrote on June 08, 2014 at 9:06 am

Can we please clarify that our current school board members should not be called "school officials?"  Their lack of knowledge and understanding of public education is appalling. 

As a parent of four Unit 4 students, they better not get rid of the school resource officers.  You want to see more "white flight" happen...go right ahead.  As a special education teacher who works primarily with our most at risk students in our district, I have personally witnessed positive relationships being built with our school resource officers that have SAVED students from ending up in jail. 

The issues we have in our schools are a mirror to the issues we have in our community.  It's time for groups like the ministerial alliance, school resource officers, school administrators, homeless liasons, and other professional, caring school staff to stop fighting each other and start working together to help our students and their families. 

I have taught in many districts across the country, all highly diverse with similar issues, and I have never seen such ignorance in the way support/interventions are being chosen and implemented.  Time to look beyond our own back yards and do what's right!!!!

Kirsten wrote on June 08, 2014 at 10:06 am

45solte, I think you're misreading Jamar Brown's comments. I believe he's saying that there's a perception that a lot more kids are being arrested than actually are, and he wants the real data out there to counter that perception.

pattsi wrote on June 08, 2014 at 11:06 am

First a bit of historic perspective--before the SRO's were approved by the then board, Imani Bazzell and Melodyne Rosales along with others presented to the then school board an alternative plan to mitigate discipline issues occurring in the schools. This was a BOE mtg just before sring break, I attended as did a large percentage of the non White population. The plan and arguments put forward were logical, a pilot program, basically no cost, integrate community justice services into the schools, etc. The counter argument by the board and superintendent was that if the decision was not made right now for SRO's there would not be sufficient time to design a program by the coming fall. Nonetheless, the BOE voted for the alternative. Spring break came and went and then came the next BOE mtg. Lo and behold, BOE completely reversed the decision of the previous month--SRO's would be in the schools the coming fall. No pilot, no control experiment, no way to test if SRO's would be successful.

Now we have 9 years of data. This data does little to describe what has gone on in the schools for 9 years. Has the population of the schools changed? Why the disparagies between the statistics based on race? Would these statistics be different had there been an alternative program used in some of the schools and hold one school as a control? If holding a school as a control, then another approach could have been to use different approaches per schools to determine if one approach might have been more successful than another. Has there been techniques used that will cause permanent behavior change in the children related to being disruptive, for whatever reason?

Even though this article focuses on what is happening in Unit 4, what happens here and whether the children realize that behavior change is in the child's best interest comes into play as they move toward being teenagers and adults. I mention this speciafically because right now and for the past 30 months the county board has been discussing the jail expansion issue, juvenile deliquent center, looking at similar statistics, arrest statistics, inmate statistics, pretrial, re-entry, re-education, community justice, produced two reports.  This is really a gestalt issue not siloed as is the present structure throughout the county.

Bottomline--maybe a revisit is positive giving a chance to look at the bigger picture and figure out how to test whether the present approach brings for the best long term results or just temporarily causes surface change.

rsp wrote on June 08, 2014 at 2:06 pm

 I think having the officer in the school is working because it's built on relationships. People's feelings about the program may not be resolved because they may have felt manipulated the way it started. If that's the case maybe they can reach out to both sides and help each other and help the kids in the process.

C-U Townie wrote on June 08, 2014 at 4:06 pm

The idea with SROs should not hinge soley on reaction to incidents in schools but as a proactive measure to establishing a better perception of law enforcement that students develop. That has long term benefits that can last long beyond the years a child is in a school with an SRO. 

I find it incredibly laughable at the idea of being "prudent" with money when this is the same school district throwing dollars here, there, everywhere with the new Central High School. So let's not use words like prudent any time soon. Instead let's look at the epic fail of the board. Losing sight of what matters over what they think is great PR. Continuing an effective program that positively impacts students or building a shiny new high school. 

The priorities of this board are off. Not that Unit 4 has a proven track record with its board but this most recent board seems to be particularly inefficient. It's no wonder they have issues with their members playing musical chairs. Who wants to remain on a sinking ship? 

Here is one idea that they should consider. You can build all the new schools you want, but if you can't do an effective job in the buildings you already have don't be surprised when a majority of parents and community members DON'T feel you are doing a good job. 

Polls are done to see approval ratings of the POTUS. We need to do one for the Unit 4 administrators and BOE. Maybe then they would listen to the public. They sure aren't doing it now. 

BruckJr wrote on June 08, 2014 at 7:06 pm

Cops in school?  Why?  Goodness, why would anyone voluntarily put their children in a school like that?

yeahokay wrote on June 09, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Patrick, 

Can we get some more context on how all of these numbers add up in comparison to each other?  

Where are most of the arrests occuring... I'm guessing more Centennial kids are arrested than Jefferson kids. So let's break the numbers down by school. Then, let's look at them comparatively next to the numbers of enrolled ethnicities. 

Let's also look at the numbers of school handled discipline cases. If 250 white kids and only 25 black kids were referred to the school office for fighting this year and only one white kid got arrested while 19 black kids did... then I think we can call it a problem. But if statistically more black kids are referred for school discipline than any other race, doesn't it make sense that statistically more of them would have to be referred to the criminal justice system? If that's the case, then we have a problem that has nothing to do with the SRO cops in the schools... that's a problem that can only be fixed at home and with the community's help. 

But if we do find out these problems are in our homes and neighborhoods and the community, I do suppose it would really be MUCH easier to blame the racial disparity on our police department than it would be to come together as a community to actually solve the problem.