At a May 13 Policy Committee meeting, the District 65 School Board had a wide ranging discussion on the use of police officers in the schools, including whether to totally eliminate using School Resource Officers (SROs). The Evanston Police Department has assigned two SROs to School District 65 for many years. The SROs visit the schools during the day on a regular basis and provide support to teachers and administrators.
The use of SROs came under attack at an April 9 Board meeting, after an SRO was called to assist with a 6-year old Black male. While the Board did not vote on the issue at that meeting, it appeared that many Board members favored eliminating the use of SROs and significantly limiting the occasions on which police officers would be called into the schools.
In a May 13 memo, Andalib Khelghati, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, said, “District 65 requires the support of the Evanston and Skokie Police Departments to ensure school safety especially when there are emergency situations.” He proposed forming a task force that could provide input on how the District could form an effective partnership with the police.
While the task force is engaging in this process, Dr. Khelghati proposes that the District implement an interim plan under which SROs would respond to emergency calls from the schools, but would not be asked to perform “de-escalation processes for children … unless there is an emergency situation.” In addition, the “SROs will check in at schools with principals and school leadership teams on a regular rotation to understand issues and concerns on safety issues,” be available to talk to classes about safety issues, and be encouraged to attend school events in business casual attire.
Board Vice President Anya Tanyavutti opposed using SROs for any purpose, saying, “I don’t see why it’s necessary to have an SRO relationship in order to then be able to communicate in instances of crisis.” She said the schools have teams trained to deal with crisis, and added, “I don’t know that we need a daily, ongoing partnership with the police to do that.”
Board member Candance Chow said the Board needs to take into account the concerns raised by the community at the April 9 Board meeting. She asked, though, “What is the potential vacuum that can be created by not having an SRO,” and “are we losing something important” by losing an SRO who has an understanding of the school context? She said she did not have an answer to those questions, but said the issue needs to be vetted, and said, “We can’t pull something away from this order of magnitude in terms of potential harm to students … and not have a viable replacement for it.”
Board member Lindsay Cohen asked, “What is the worst that can happen if we stopped using SROs?” Dr. Khelghati said if the District has no SROs and calls the police, “we would have no control over who comes.” In contrast, the SRO has knowledge of the school, and there is a level of trust with the principal and school leaders, he said.
Ms. Cohen asked if administrators could build that relationship with police officers off school grounds? Dr. Khelghati said, “Of course,” but added that he thought the task force he proposed could help address that issue.
Board President Suni Kartha said nobody is suggesting that police not be called in an emergency situation. “To say we are going to end our relationship with police doesn’t mean that we’re not going to use law enforcement in appropriate situations.”
Ms. Kartha added that what she heard at the April 9 Board meeting was that community members and Board members “would like the District to move away from SROs, the SRO program.” If administrators wanted to develop a relationship with the Police Department, she said, it would not require SROs to be routinely in the building. She said she did not see the need for a task force to provide input.
Dr. Khelghati said, “In the last two or three weeks, we have had three or four students who have made threats about the schools. In these instances, it does benefit the District to have known police officers we are working with regularly to approach it from a child development and thoughtful approach.” He added, “It’s important in those instances to know that we have a Police Department [where] it’s not going to lead to an arrest, but to a restorative process.”
Superintendent Paul Goren said he did not think SROs needed to be walking the halls in the schools every day, and they did not need to be called to help de-escalate students. But he added that SROs have helped because they have relationships with the schools and the community. He said he thought a task force would help in addressing this issue.
Board member Rebeca Mendoza said if the District has no SROs in the schools, “that means we call 911,” and “there is no guarantee that a specific officer will come out. … We’re talking about losing a relationship,” and losing a person who may help avoid creating a criminal record. “I think we need to be very careful when we say we don’t want SROs in our schools.”
Policy Committee Chair Sergio Hernandez said he wanted to see a “drawing down” of the SROs. He added, though, that he was OK with moving ahead with a task force, as long as there were the “right stakeholders on the task force.”
No vote was taken at the Policy Committee meeting.