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Debate over School Resource Officers Moves to the Capitol

Credit: iStock

by Isiah Holmes, Wisconsin Examiner

Two Republican-backed bills on school safety made their way to the Assembly Committee on Education last week. Public and private high schools would be required to report data on crimes and incidents that occur on their property under Assembly Bill 53. If 100 incidents occur during a semester then the other bill, Assembly Bill 69, requires the school to employ armed school resource officers.

Both bills come in the wake of renewed attention to police calls in the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) district. During the fall 2022 semester 34 MPS high schools called police 778 times. Mayor Cavalier Johnson has signaled that police officers could potentially return to MPS sometime this year. Years of student activism, both in Milwaukee and Madison resulted in the removal of resource officers from schools in 2020. As in Milwaukee, surrounding communities including Wauwatosa have dealt with school fights among students and parents. Wauwatosa, however, has continued to have resource officers deployed throughout its school system. So does the neighboring Brown Deer School District, which has also experienced safety issues within the school. Although MPS no longer has armed police officers stationed in the schools, the district maintains security guards in the schools. Police are called when conflicts escalate beyond what the guards can handle.

Some student activists attended the public hearing last Thursday on the proposed school safety bills. If passed, the legislation would essentially undo what the students have worked for years to accomplish. Both bills are multi-faceted. Data collected under AB-53 would be reported to the Department of Public Instruction and included in a school’s performance reports. It would cover incidents or crimes that occur on school property and property leased by the school on weekdays. Incidents that happen on school buses or other school transportation would also need to be reported. However, city buses used by students with bus passes provided by the school would not be covered. Offenses including disorderly conduct, homicide, sexual assault, burglary, battery and arson are covered by the bill.

Using data to mandate resource officers

Sen. John Jagler (R-Watertown) said during the public hearing Thursday that “culture and safety” often drive parents away from certain schools. “Coming from an aspect of shining a light, I think this is just data. It’s just pure data. There’s no carrot, there’s no stick, there’s no punishment coming from this data. It’s just what parents, quite frankly, should know. That should be available to them — what kind of atmosphere is happening at these schools and crimes.”

Bill author Rep. Cindi Duchow (R-Delafield) said the measure gives parents another tool to know what’s going on in schools. In her testimony, Duchow added that the bill would also include use or possession of alcohol or controlled substance and possession of a firearm. Those offenses, however, aren’t specifically listed in the bill’s language. Duchow has also pushed for stricter bail laws by amending the state constitution and other tough-on-crime policies.

“It seems like it’s targeted to really big communities that already have a problem with violence.”

– Rep. David Considine (D-Baraboo)

Some committee members questioned whether the data would be meaningful. “I think about school buildings and school grounds being community hubs,” said committee member Rep. Kristina Shelton (D- Green Bay). Shelton wondered how the bill would work at sporting events, where an incident may occur that involves people who aren’t connected to the school or community. Such an incident would count against that school under the bill. “It concerns me how we’d be using that data and how parents would be connecting it to what they perceive or don’t perceive about the safety of their school,” said Shelton.

Duchow countered that parents could reach out to school superintendents or principals to get specifics about what happened during particular  incidents. “People know what’s going on in their schools,” said Duchow. Shelton quickly asked, “If they do, then why do we need this bill?” Committee member Rep. David Considine (D-Baraboo) had concerns that the bill seemed targeted. “It seems like it’s targeted to really big communities that already have a problem with violence,” said Considine, adding that those problems are occurring “both in and out of the school.” Duchow denied that she was trying to target anyone with the bill.

Other committee members asked whether incidents in nearby parks used by a school would count against the institution. And some suggested there could be a chilling effect on school staff who might hesitate to report incidents that could count against their school. If passed, the data collection would begin during the 2024-25 school year.

AB-69 would require schools to hire armed officers if they have 100 incidents in a semester. A resource officer must also be hired if there are 25 incidents resulting in an arrest. The bill covers many of the same offenses as AB-53, but adds possession of alcohol, tobacco, cigarettes, nicotine, tobacco products and vaping products.

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards and the Wisconsin School Social Workers Association lobbied against the data collection bill. No organization lobbied in favor of the school resource officer bill, with three registering against.

Problems with police are just ‘pop culture’

The resource officer bill drew some of the more heated conversations of the afternoon. Rep. Nik Rettinger (R-Mukwonago) spoke in favor of the bill, which is also co-authored by Duchow. Two representatives from the Milwaukee Police Association also spoke in favor of the measure. Ten people from various Wisconsin organizations and communities spoke against the bill during the public hearing Thursday. Rettinger and members of the police association dismissed the experiences that led students and parents in some schools to want to cut ties with resource officers.

Rettinger said schools have moved to remove resource officers and “demonize their presence.” Recalling his own childhood, Rettinger said that having a resource officer helped him when his home life became difficult. Shelton questioned why key factors in school violence, like poverty and a lack of counselors and social workers, aren’t being emphasized instead of  more police.

Rep. Francesca Hong (D-Madison) noted that the bill’s authors also referenced a Fordham Institute survey in co-sponsorship memos. The survey said that “over half of teachers in high-poverty schools” felt that disorderly and unsafe school environments made learning more difficult. Rettinger used the survey to argue for more police in schools. Yet, as Hong pointed out, the Fordham Institute recommends hiring more teaching assistants and mental health professionals, not more police. “It sounds like work for additional, separate legislation,” Rettigner said, adding he was only there to discuss resource officers. Rettinger acknowledged the survey he referenced didn’t recommend more police.

“I don’t know what statistics people use to determine that police officers were scary, besides some of the stuff we see in the news on very minute incidents.”

– Andrew Wagner, president of the Milwaukee Police Association

Later, Rettinger was asked whether he understood that minority students may not feel safe around resource officers. “It’s difficult to track people’s feelings on situations,” said Rettinger. “And while there’s certainly a lot in pop culture and in the media right now surrounding that situation, I would certainly think that putting school resource officers into schools might be a way to remedy that situation. To bring school resource officers and policing in a friendly light, into schools and interactions with students.”

Andrew Wagner, president of the Milwaukee Police Association, agreed. “School resource officers wasn’t even controversial five, six years ago,” said Wagner. “Just recently has it become an issue.” Wagner said Milwaukee’s resource officers were successful, funneling valuable information to the police department. Describing the shift as sudden, Wagner said resource officers had become “too scary” to be around schools. “I don’t know what statistics people use to determine that police officers were scary, besides some of the stuff we see in the news on very minute incidents,” said Wagner.

Alexander Ayala, vice president of Milwaukee’s police association, added that resource officers can be culturally attuned to the community. Ayala applied for the first class of resource officers in Milwaukee. Later, he became a recruiter with the goal of bringing in more minorities in the department. “That can be a teaching moment to say, ‘Hey, the police are here to help you,’” said Ayala, describing the benefit of resource officers.

Wagner added, “We see a lot of stuff in the news about police incidents and we understand that. But that cannot be the only thing the kids see.”

“They’re watching the news, they’re seeing that one police officer did something stupid in Minnesota, or wherever it was, and 100 miles away they get scared of the police,” he continued. “So I validate their feelings for feeling scared, but it’s an invalid accuracy because police officers are good.” Wagner also claimed that “99.9% of police officers never commit misconduct.” Prior to removing resource officers, MPS allocated part of its budget to fund their services from the police department. It’s a debt which MPS has yet to completely pay off to the police department, Wagner mentioned in his testimony.

For students and parents, it’s not fiction

Wagner’s comments didn’t sit well with some members of the committee and the public in attendance.

Shelton asked if Wagner had any actual evidence that resource officers make schools safer. Wagner admitted he didn’t have any statistics or data. “We can talk about whether we like [School Resource Officers] or whether there are nice police officers. But unfortunately, sir, what I heard from you was a minimization of the impact, and the effect, and the experience especially of our Black community members, many of whom are here today. So you not only minimize their experience, and their fear, and quite frankly videos …”

At that point, committee chairman Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay), interrupted Shelton and cut her off. “It’s inappropriate for you to be attacking our people,” he said.

Shortly before the exchange, Kitchens admitted that, “I’m not supposed to editorialize,” though still praised school resource officers in his own district. Kitchens is a former school board president. “I’m very supportive,” he said.

Rep. Barbara Dittrich (R-Oconomowoc), who serves as vice-chair of the committee, also  praised police officers and said resource officers would be better than street officers in schools.

Duchow suggested that MPS and other school districts should be fined for police visits, much like a bar can be declared a public nuisance.

A sign in the hearing room indicated that cameras were not allowed. But Republican members of the committee took pictures with their phones during testimony. It was not lost on the numerous people who opposed the bill that not one of its authors represented Milwaukee or Madison. Yet the proposed policies would reverse the work done by students and parents in those cities, who felt resource officers were not good for students.

Resource officers bring a variety of functions to schools. While they interact with students and deal with fights and other incidents, they also investigate student activity. Lockers and student property may be subjected to dog searches on school grounds. In Wauwatosa, officers once used a program called Quick $50, which offered students money to inform on their peers.

The deepest impressions have been made when students were disregarded, or physically injured by officers.

Early last year, an off-duty Kenosha officer put his knee on the neck of a 12-year-old girl as he was trying to break up a fight. A report by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) found that students with disabilities were restrained and secluded at higher rates than their peers. Prior to the removal of officers from Madison and Milwaukee schools, Wisconsin referred students to police at twice the national rate. Even surveys that suggest a demand for police to return to school show respondents split along racial lines.

The Wisconsin Professional Police Association’s annual survey found 63% of respondents thought police made schools safer. The survey was conducted on adults with access to the internet. White respondents were more likely to feel protests hurt criminal justice, and that police incidents involving minorities are isolated and not indicative of a wider problem. White respondents were also less likely to view racism as a problem in society, and more likely to say police violence is not a problem at all.

Community members push back

Shadayra Kilfoy-Flores, a Madison resident with Moms on a Mission, thanked Shelton and others on the committee for being culturally sensitive. A report from the Madison Metropolitan School District on the 2019-20 school year showed minority students bore the brunt of interactions with resource officers. Black students made up 65% of arrests and 82% of citations. Of the 84 interactions officers had with students, 51 students were Black, 12 Hispanic or Latino, 10 were multiracial, and 9 were white.

“These are the kids who are affected the most in our largest school districts,” said Kilfoy-Flores. “Why do we have police associations here asking for more state funding for policing our students, rather than investing in their education, investing in their literacy?” Kilfoy-Fores stressed that police violence against students “is real, it’s not pop culture.”

Cindi Tena, co-executive director of Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), also insisted that resource officers aren’t the solution. Tena was part of the coalition of Milwaukee students that worked for years to expel resource officers. “As a student in Milwaukee Public Schools, a district that is a clear target in this Assembly bill, I experienced first hand the threatening environment that was created by being policed in a place where I was supposed to feel nurtured and empowered. From the moment we walked into the building, the message was sent to us that we were a threat in our own school.”

I’m not hearing a conversation around how do we create an environment where they’re not needed or necessary at all.”

– James Morgan, grandfather and Wisconsin resident.

Tena highlighted that the bill essentially undermines decisions made by democratically elected school boards. “Exactly zero of the nine reps who introduced the bill are from Milwaukee or Madison, the two largest and most racially diverse school districts in our state,” said Tena. “Why is it that these authors are so keen on targeting and controlling communities that they are not a part of?”

Several other community members echoed Tena and Kilfoy-Flores. Many expressed that they were offended by statements made by the police association and the Republican bill authors. Others also expressed that they saw resource officers do more harm than good and fail to help students when they needed it. The Uvalde shooting in Texas last year was also invoked by residents speaking against the bill. In that shooting, an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 fourth graders and two teachers. A Texas House panel later found “systematic failures” in the law enforcement response to the shooting. Transgender students and parents also made their voices heard during the public hearing. Many expressed that resource officers didn’t handle situations with transgender youth well, or didn’t believe transgender youth when they described problems or abuse they’d experienced.

“I hear a lot about why it’s necessary to have SRO’s or law enforcement in our schools,” James Morgan, a grandfather of a public school student, told Wisconsin Examiner. “But I’m not hearing a conversation around how do we create an environment where they’re not needed or necessary at all.” When he testified, Morgan said, “I was triggered by a lot of the language that I’ve heard throughout today. It was language of separation and divisiveness.” The problems of racism, police violence and the systemic racism “existed before any of us,” he said. “Even though we didn’t create it, we’re being called upon to respond to it. What is that going to look like?”

This story was written by Isiah Holmes, a contributor to the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

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