Urbana School Board Votes To Increase Police Presence In Middle, High Schools

November 20, 2019
 
Man sits at a table in front of the board of education in their meeting room to address them during public comment.

Felipe Menanteau addresses the Urbana School District 116 Board of Education during a board meeting on Nov, 19, 2019.

Lee V. Gaines/Illinois Public Media

At their Tuesday night meeting, members of the Urbana School District 116 Board of Education approved an intergovernmental agreement with the city that would quadruple police presence in the district’s middle and high school buildings. 

The board was divided on the measure, and approved it in a 4-3 vote after hours of public comment and debate. 

Since 1993, the district has had only one part-time officer who divided their time between detective duties and as a school resource officer at both buildings. The new two-and-half-year agreement provides for two dedicated full-time school resource officers — one each at Urbana middle and high schools. The district will also have to foot the bill for the officers, an expense totaling about $321,000 per year to cover salaries, benefits and equipment, according to Urbana Police Chief Bryant Seraphin. Previously, the police department covered the cost of the part-time officer.

Following a fight at the high school in February that resulted in multiple arrests and injuries, an Urbana police officer was placed in the building five days per week. Another officer has been at the middle school five days per week since the beginning of the current school year. 

Theresa Sweeney, a school psychologist at Champaign Unit 4 Schools and a parent of two Urbana high schoolers, told the board during public comment that the climate in the high school has “settled down significantly this year” due in part to the presence of a school resource officer.

Both the principals of Urbana Middle School, Joseph Wiemelt, and Urbana High School, Mitch Berenson, spoke in favor of the increased police presence. Wiemelt said the middle school has benefitted from having a full-time school resource officer.

“We have had several students and families come to UMS asking for her,” he said.

Urbana High School associate principal, Julie Blixen, also spoke in favor of more school resource officers, saying they “are more than just people with guns in our schools. They are there to be that safe person when someone needs something.”

I’ve seen a lot of smart, intelligent kids lost and left behind. It’s not right. All kids deserve an education."Linda Reynolds

But many community members and parents spoke out against the measure, citing research that finds that the presence of school resource officers doesn’t necessarily lead to safer schools, as well as racial disparities in discipline and arrests.

“I’m not for the school to prison pipeline,” Linda Reynolds told the board. “I’ve seen a lot of smart, intelligent kids lost and left behind. It’s not right. All kids deserve an education.”

Others questioned whether the district had a plan to evaluate the effectiveness of school resource officers, and who would be involved in the hiring process.

"We need more data and understanding of the reasons for and thus the role of these police officers in our school,” Allison O’Dwyer told the board. “Issue number two: we need a better plan in place as to how we will hire and evaluate these officers.”

We’re already strapped to keep people in our buildings, to keep teachers happy, to keep these positions filled. And then we’re going to tell them no, you can’t have the support you’re begging me for."Tori Exum, USD 116 Board Member

Urbana High School student Michael Tessene said he wasn’t aware of any studies proving the effectiveness of school resource officers.

“But the effect that they do have is that students feel more unsafe,” Tessene said. “There are men with guns whose job is to violently take them away to a cage if they break the rules in school.”

Chief Seraphin addressed the school to prison pipeline concern. He said no Urbana student had ever been sentenced to the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice or Department of Corrections as a result an arrest made by a school resource officer over the last five and a half years.

Board president John Dimit defended the police department. 

Urbana School District 116 Board of Education member, Tori Exum, speaks during a board meeting on Nov. 19, 2019. 

Photo Credit: Lee V. Gaines/Illinois Public Media

“I just frankly don’t buy that the Urbana police department has been a part of (the school to prison pipeline). I don’t think they ever have and ever will be,” he said.

Dimit said his position on school resource officers had shifted as a result of disciplinary issues at the schools, saying the district “nearly lost control of our schools.”

He added that staff had also pleaded for full-time officers at the schools. Board member Tori Exum echoed that sentiment. 

“We’re already strapped to keep people in our buildings, to keep teachers happy, to keep these positions filled. And then we’re going to tell them no, you can’t have the support you’re begging me for. These individuals are emailing us everyday,” she said.

Board members Peggy Patten and Ruth Ann Fisher balked at the cost of the additional officers.

“We don’t even start teachers off at these salaries. And that bothers me greatly. I’m doing my best to keep myself calm about this,” Fisher said. “This is too much money right now. We have not studied it.”

Exum said she expects the district to study the effect of the SROs over time and to review their progress. 

“I would expect to see some pretty good things happening. I would expect data. I would expect students to be present to help select our officers… and I would expect for us to be re-reviewing,” she said.

Board members Patten, Fisher and Anne Hall voted against the measure. 

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Story source: WILL