News Local/State

Urbana School Board Allows School Resource Officers To Openly Carry Guns

Urbana School board members seated around a long U shaped table during their board meeting

The Urbana School District 116 Board of Education reaffirmed their decision to hire two full-time school resource officers (SRO), including one each for Urbana Middle and High Schools, during a meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019. Lee V. Gaines/Illinois Public Media

During their Tuesday evening meeting, the Urbana School District 116 Board of Education reaffirmed its decision to hire two full-time school resource officers (SRO), including one each for Urbana Middle and High Schools.

District 116 Board member Peggy Patten asked the board to consider reducing that number to one full-time resource officer. The board previously approved an intergovernmental agreement with the city to hire the two officers. Since 1993, the district has had one part-time officer who divided their time between detective duties and as a school resource officer at both buildings.

She previously voted against hiring two SROs. In her remarks on Tuesday, she cited the $320,000 annual cost for the officers.

“We know that small class sizes and small case sizes enable our teachers, counselors and social workers to more effectively connect with our students, and must acknowledge that committing $320,000 annually for two-and-a-half years to pay for two full-time SROs will certainly limit the funds available for teachers, counselors and social workers, who are in fact responsible for creating safe and effective learning environments for our students and staff,” Patten said. She said hiring two officers would be an “irresponsible” use of the district’s limited resources.

But no board member who had previously approved the intergovernmental agreement took Patten up on her offer to reconsider. She also attempted to pass an amendment that would require SROs to conceal their guns while on duty. That measure also failed.

Police Chief Bryant Seraphin said he strongly believed SROs needed to fully display their weapons while inside school buildings.

“The full duty belt with all the accoutrement does allow the officer access to all of their tools, and that’s kind of the practical side, they have everything that they need,” he said.

Seraphin added that he hoped any student who may be afraid of the weapon would get to know the SRO, and come to see them as approachable human beings.

Patten said she feared the gun would interfere in the officers' ability to build those relationships, and send the wrong message to the school community.

"I have a hard time accepting the insistence that it needs to be openly displayed," she said.

More than a dozen people spoke during the public comment portion of meeting, and most supported hiring two full-time officers. Those who didn’t feared that the officers would make students, particularly those who are marginalized, feel unsafe while at school. They also worried that the presence of the officers would lead to an increase in student arrests.

A social worker at Urbana High School, Alicia Trezise, teared up as she spoke about how the school resource officer at the Urbana High School had assisted her and the students she works with. She said she supports hiring two full time SROs — one at the middle and high schools. 

“But I think we need to be very, very careful in oversight, because I’m also very sensitive to the students, and the families of the students in our community who have some trust issues with the police, and rightfully so,” she said.

Board president John Dimit said the district invested $1.2 million over the last year to fund additional social and emotional support personnel for students.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines