CHAMPAIGN — For at least another year, school resource officers will work in Unit 4 schools.
At Monday night’s meeting, the school board voted 6-1 to renew the intergovernmental agreement with the city of Champaign to pay $349,611 to re-enlist two school resource officers for the next year. All seven board members expressed a desire to move away from the program eventually.
“We’ve asked for better control over their movement and have been given that,” board member Bruce Brown said. “I look forward to the day that we don’t need an SRO, but I know that we’re not there yet in our community.
“With the uptick in violence that’s happening in our community, with the uptick in violence that’s happening amongst our kids, we would be foolish to believe that that’s not going to show up on our doorsteps, in our schools.”
After hearing from several community members who oppose the placement of police officers in schools, board members emphasized that under the memorandum of understanding between the Champaign Police Department and the district, the officers would only be utilized in “emergent violent crises,” as was stated in the anti-racism resolution the district passed last summer.
Officers are only to be called by principals and not by teachers.
“Our SROs are not there for disciplinary infractions ever,” board member Kathy Shannon said. “They are there for safety situations. I also want to point out that, in every survey we have ever done, not only is there overwhelming support for SROs in general, but specifically among our Black students, our Black families, our Black staff and our Black administrators.
“Many of our Black students are afraid of our SROs, but they’re also afraid of what happens if there’s no SRO in our schools,” Shannon added. “It pains me to hear those students say, ‘We can’t not have an SRO.’ So I think we need to listen to those students.
“And I think it is incumbent upon not only this board, but every member of this community to make it so they don’t have to have that. To give them an alternative, to put everything we have to put into making this a successful program so that we no longer need SROs in school.”
As the lone dissenting board member, Elizabeth Sotiropoulos contrasted the district’s ability to make sweeping changes with regard to remote learning this year with its inability to make the radical changes required to eliminate the officers from schools.
“You all built the plane as you were flying it,” Sotiropoulos said. “And yet now, you’ve relapsed to your old habits. You’ve asked the board to approve a tired, old idea that does not work. The community, some of whom is sitting here tonight, has been telling the district for years that cops in schools are hurting students. This district’s administrative decisions continue to marginalize the students of this district. When are we going to have the courage to try something different?
“I also acknowledge that progress can be extremely, haltingly, discouragingly slow. This district, its administrators, its staff and its board, has made progress, and for that, I thank you. We have made progress, but we are not where we should be. … We can be different, and we can be better, and it does not have to wait another year.”
The decision comes as the district prepares to usher in its new superintendent, Shelia Boozer, this summer. The board voted on a resolution Monday that allows the district to hire Boozer as a consultant before her official duties begin.
Board President Amy Armstrong emphasized that she didn’t want to make a decision to completely remove the officers at the same time Boozer is taking on her new role, succeeding Susan Zola as superintendent.
“There’s not a true plan, and if we just stopped this, what is Ms. Boozer going to step into?” Armstrong said. “I wasn’t willing to do that to Ms. Boozer on her first day.”
Armstrong also urged the district to evaluate the program via a third party next year instead of the in-house employees that evaluated it this year.
Brown, who teaches at Urbana High School, said he looks forward to the day when the district can create its own security force to replace the officers.
But without that option, the board will wait another year before re-evaluating.
“It’s been said that, even if we don’t have the SROs in our buildings, we are still going to have police in our schools,” Brown said. “When something happens that elevates to a level that police are required, who do we want intervening? Someone off the street that has no idea what our buildings are like, who has no frame of reference or understanding of what it is to be in a high school, to be in a school environment?
“Do we want (Minneapolis police officer) Derek Chauvin to show up on our porch, or do we want someone who’s already acclimated to our space, who knows or has established relationships with not only our students, but established relationships with our administrators and understanding their roles?
“And if the committee had not brought that type of proposal, then I definitely would not be voting to renew this contract, but they did exactly what we asked them to do. And I believe that this is a step in the right direction, because in my eyes, this is a step of weaning ourselves off of a reliance on an SRO.”