Board weighs officers' role

Board weighs officers' role

Despite some objections, the presence of police officers in Champaign schools has worked as intended.

Champaign school board members, concerned about costs and perceptions, are in the midst of considering whether to keep police officers in five local schools.

Given the demonstrated success of the school resource officers and the degree of support they have from students, parents and school employees, it ought to be an easy decision to keep them. Nonetheless, it's important to periodically review programs of this nature for their strengths and weaknesses and see where improvements can be made.

In that sense, the board's action is welcome.

It is unfortunate, of course, that police officers were originally placed in the schools in 2006 because of outbreaks of violence that left people injured and the learning environment shattered. Their presence — one in each of the two high schools and three middle schools — was initially required to gain control of circumstances and reassure the public that their children would be safe.

But it's that image of the resource officers as law enforcement personnel that is part of the problem in some people's eyes, most particularly members of the black community. Critics have suggested the officers are present to "criminalize" a segment of the student community, meaning minorities.

Arrest records show that the number of students taken into custody has fallen steadily, from a high of 84 in the 2008-2009 school year to just 21 in 2013-14. Those same numbers show that the overwhelming number of those arrested were black.

SRO opponents suggest, naturally, that racial animus explains those statistics. A less emotional explanation is that the individuals taken into custody were responsible for creating or aggravating a problem that required police intervention. Is it not more likely that the people arrested have problems because of their conduct, not their ethnicity?

Let's be clear about one thing — the kind of behavior that requires police attention cannot be tolerated in any kind of public setting, let alone in a public school where much important work is done. Order is crucial to the learning environment, and that requirement can never be compromised.

But police officers serve a variety of roles in our society, so it's important to view this issue from a broader perspective. One of law enforcement's most important duties has nothing to do with law enforcement.

Police officers are community caretakers. They respond to calls to check the welfare of individuals whose relatives cannot reach them. They respond to medical emergencies. If they see someone having a problem, they offer assistance.

When people see police officers among the crowd at a football game, do they fear the officers are there to "criminalize" the fans? Or do they interpret their presence as one of managing crowds, directing traffic and providing assistance in whatever form it is required. Obviously, it's the latter, and, because of that, most people feel a sense of reassurance.

Considered in that context, the school resource officers' presence is, and ought to be, welcome for all students and school employees — if they are doing their jobs right. Sure, their presence encourages a calmer atmosphere, and that's good. But they also are there to interact with students and teachers, answer questions, provide assistance and present a role model for those students who need one.

Authority figures are a source of fascination to many young people. Authority figures who demonstrate concern, show kindness and give advice to those who may not be intimately acquainted with those qualities can have a dramatically positive impact on impressionable youths.

Some might view it as frightfully naive to suggest that a school resource officer is really Officer Friendly under another name, but that's the reality. At least, it ought to be.

One of the issues that school board members are considering is the cost of keeping these officers. While the city pays the costs of three officers, the district pays for two — an estimated $291,000 for next year. That's a lot of money. But given their beneficial role, the better question isn't whether the school district can afford to keep them, but whether it can afford not to keep them.

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