State commission on racial justice recommends considering alternatives to police in schools

photo by: Richard Gwin/Lawrence Journal World

A Lawrence police car is seen parked in front of Lawrence High School in 2014.

A state commission focused on racial equity in justice believes Kansas schools should consider using counselors and social workers to help address conflicts in schools rather than using police officers.

Gov. Laura Kelly’s Commission on Racial Equity and Justice made the recommendation in its initial report that was recently released. Kelly put the commission together in response to civil unrest throughout the country earlier this year related to the deaths of Black men and women at the hands of the police.

The commission provided many recommendations to improve racial equity in different aspects of the state’s criminal justice system. One of the topics the report focused on was the use of school resource officers, also known as SROs, in public schools.

The commission came up with four recommendations regarding SROs, three of which are for school districts to consider and another for the Kansas Legislature to consider.

But coming to those recommendations was not easy, said Shannon Portillo, co-chair for the commission.

“The discussion around SROs was one of the most difficult the Commission had,” Portillo told the Journal-World on Wednesday in an email. “The research is very clear, having SROs in schools generally results in worse outcomes for students, particularly students of color. However, there are a number of schools and educators who are very supportive of their individual SRO programs and SROs, highlighting potentially positive relationships between youth and law enforcement.”

Portillo is a Lawrence resident who works as an associate professor and administrator for the University of Kansas and has a background of studying criminal justice. She is also a Douglas County Commissioner-elect who will take her seat in the position next month.

The commission’s first recommendation suggests schools should consider alternatives to SROs when dealing with conflict, such as using counselors and social workers to help intervene when there are mental health crises or other difficulties among students. Portillo said doing so would allow counselors and social workers who have more specific training than police officers to address such issues.

“While SROs often have additional training, on top of the 15 week police officer academy, it is typically limited and the majority of their training is focused on law enforcement rather than adolescent development, mental health, or pro-social development,” Portillo said. “The Commission recognized that counselors and social workers would be a positive alternative to SROs in schools.”

The commission then recommended schools consider establishing alternative programming to address conflict, such as restorative justice and mentoring programs. It also recommended schools have SROs demonstrate they are committed to inclusive environments in schools. To do so, the commission said schools should have their SROs regularly meet with the public and have agreements with defined roles for the officers that makes it clear that their jobs should not include providing school discipline.

“If SROs are part of school communities, schools must organize regular community meetings so families and community members can get to know the officers in schools,” Portillo said. “Schools should not rely on SROs for conflict resolution, and should develop evidence-based programming for students like restorative justice programs.”

Finally, the commission also recommended state lawmakers revise a law regarding implicit bias training for officers who work in schools to include similar training specific to educational settings.

The commission is expected to provide more reports in the future. Those reports are planned to be released in July 2021 and January 2022.

In Lawrence, the school district uses both SROs and school counselors. According to the district’s website, both Lawrence High School and Free State High School employ several counselors as well as a school psychologist for each school.

However, the question of whether SROs should be in Lawrence schools has become a topic of conversation in recent years. In 2019, when the city of Lawrence proposed the school district begin paying for some of the costs to use police officers in schools, board members Kelly Jones and Melissa Johnson expressed concerns on how the police officers may be treating marginalized groups, such as female students and students of color.

But earlier this year, the district said it would continue to use the SRO program, despite nationwide calls for change and some large city school districts in other states removing their programs.

District spokeswoman Julie Boyle did not respond to requests for comment about the commission’s recent recommendations.

Related stories:

• July 10, 2019 — City leaders, school board begin heated discussion on future funding for school resource officers

• Jan. 27, 2020 — District must ‘do a better job’ with police in Lawrence schools, superintendent says

• Jun 14, 2020 — Despite nationwide calls for change, Lawrence school district to continue use of police in schools

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