The year 2020 has been one of enormous change and the emergence of strong voices, some speaking out for the first time, others for 1,000th time. Much of the community discussion lifted up the issue of race and police work. The vibrations were felt strongly in Iowa’s largest, most diverse district where police officers serve as School Resource Officers (SROs) in the schools.
During Anti-Racist Town Halls held over the summer, some of our students, parents and staff expressed different comfort levels with having SROs present in schools. In response, the district is examining the SRO program and planning to ask all families, students and staff to help shape its future.
“We want to be able to hear all voices in this conversation and come back with a recommendation that truly reflects our community’s thoughts,” said Jake Troja, Director of Climate and Culture. “We’re also hearing from law enforcement as part of that community.”
Troja laid out the district’s current contract with the Des Moines Police Department for the Board of Directors at last night’s meeting. The DMPD provides one SRO at each high school, and a supervisor and four officers who rotate between the district’s ten middle schools. The SROs, who undergo special training including working with minors in educational environments and relationship building, can assist staff with a range of student infractions including fights, drug and alcohol possession or distribution, bullying, a threat with a dangerous weapon and active shooter situations.
The only speaker from the community expressed her support for the SRO relationships at the high school level. Hoover High School Associate Principal Tori Rabe told the Board it is disingenuous to portray the SROs as a negative presence in our schools.
“The times that I have partnered with an SRO on specific student concerns the situation warranted this partnership,” Rabe said. “The reality is these concerns dealt with legal or criminal issues.” Rabe told the Board if the SRO had not been present, she would have had to contact the police department, which would result in some delay of resolution.
“Building administrators cannot be expected to call 9-1-1 and wait for a response when we have thousands of students in our care,” she said.
The contract with the Des Moines Police Department was suspended for the first part of 2020-21 school year while the district’s schools have remained in virtual learning for all but a few weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The plan when students return to learning in schools for the remainder of the school year will include SROs at high schools only.
But what the SRO presence looks like in schools during the academic year 2021-22 remains to be developed. The district plans to send a survey via email to parents, students and staff asking for input in the process, and carefully examine the responses. Families will receive their questions early next week as part of the second-semester learning model survey. Students in grades 5-12 and staff will have an opportunity to provide input as a part of Panorama Survey which will be distributed November 30 – December 11.
“I really feel like we can develop a plan that will be positively received by our community,” Superintendent Dr. Thomas Ahart told the Board.
The district will come back with a formal proposal in the Spring of 2021 when the Board of Directors will decide if the SRO program will continue next school year, and if it does, what it will look like moving forward.
“There’s a place for law and order and safety in every community in every situation,” said Board member Teree Caldwell-Johnson. “It has to be a very careful, balanced approach.”