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