There are few things more dangerous to a public school than a reputation as a place where discipline problems threaten student safety and undermine the educational atmosphere.
Frankly, fair or unfair, that's the image that hangs over the Champaign public schools, and it's one reason the system is operating under a cloud. School officials seem to recognize that threat, and the school board appeared ready to approve the introduction of school resource officers (essentially police officers assigned to work full time in the middle and high schools) as a safeguard against behavior threatening to students and teachers.
Last Monday, after hearing complaints from members of the black community that armed police officers would go out of their way to harass black students, the school board dropped the issue without putting it to a vote.
Superintendent Arthur Culver, who previously backed the plan, subsequently announced that the proposal was dead and then reannounced that he'll bring it back for reconsideration Monday because he thinks it's the right thing to do.
Culver had better be persuasive if he's serious about dealing with this vexing problem.
There's an unspoken minimum contract that public schools make with the parents of the children they educate: at the end of the school day a child will come home no worse than he was at the start.
It is on that basic and sensible premise that parents place their faith. Sure, education matters, and extracurricular activities are important. But safety is paramount, and if parents are placed in a position of seriously worrying about their child's safety or if they're given reason to think a school district isn't serious about safety it won't be long before they'll have their child in another school, whether it's a public school in another community, a home school or a private school.
When it comes to the safety of their children, parents know no compromise nor should they.
So where does that leave school board members worried about alienating an already alienated black community? Obviously, they're on the hot seat.
But the only thing they can really is do examine the issue on its merit and vote as conscience dictates.
If the idea of school resource officers works as planned, minority concerns will be allayed. If it doesn't work, the program can be modified or ended.
The real danger is if board maintains the status quo because it would represent considered inaction. Concerned parents won't have trouble figuring out what means.
Oh, by the way, if the board votes to reject school resource officers it doesn't mean that there will never be police officers in the school. They'll continue to come when they're called, and they'll carry guns. Only they will be dealing with people they don't know and problems that could have been defused earlier. Is that really what's best for all concerned?