Despite nationwide calls for change, Lawrence school district to continue use of police in schools

photo by: Sylas May/Journal-World Illustration

Despite calls across the country for changes in how law enforcement agencies operate, the Lawrence school district plans to continue using officers from the Lawrence Police Department in its schools.

But school board leaders are asking whether there needs to be more oversight of the school resource officer program to ensure students are not subjected to issues like systemic racism.

Superintendent Anthony Lewis recently said in a statement provided to the Journal-World that the SRO program would continue in Lawrence schools. He said he has met with the program’s new supervisor — Sgt. Ryan Halsted, according to LPD — to discuss the program for the upcoming school year.

“I appreciate our partnership with the Lawrence Police Department and the opportunities for our students to have positive interactions with police,” Lewis said in the statement. “I look forward to strengthening this partnership.”

Lewis’ statement was sent to the Journal-World after a reporter asked about the school district’s stance on the use of SROs in light of ongoing protests against racism and police brutality. Many protests have taken place across the country since May 25, when George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, died after pleading for air while he was pinned under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Chauvin has since been charged with second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, and three other police officers who were at the scene also face charges in connection with Floyd’s death.

The ramifications have extended into schools: Earlier this month, Minneapolis’ school board severed its ties with the city’s police department in response to Floyd’s death, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Likewise, the Denver school board last week voted unanimously to remove police from public schools.

Although the Lawrence school district isn’t planning anything similar to what those large cities did, Lewis said he’s sensitive to the nationwide concerns about racism and police brutality. He was one of the many people who marched down Massachusetts Street on May 31 as the Lawrence community joined the protests.


“As a Black man, the father of two Black boys, and as the Superintendent of more than 350 other Black boys, this is personal,” Lewis said in a message recently posted to the school district’s website. “Walking alongside some of our scholars during the recent Downtown Lawrence protest march and seeing the hurt, concern, and uncertainty on their faces saddened me. They deserve better.”

In the same message, Lewis also laid out some of the equity-related work the district has done, including providing diversity training for employees, evaluating classroom materials “with a culturally relevant rubric” and implementing special teams at schools to address equity issues. He did not, however, mention the school district’s relationship with law enforcement.

In January, though, Lewis said the school district may need to do more to make sure officers are not racially profiling students. He said steps may include helping students build relationships with police officers and making sure students, faculty and staff members understand the officers’ purpose in schools, the Journal-World has reported.

“There are things we have to do and will do a better job of,” Lewis said at the time.

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The question of whether officers should be in Lawrence’s schools is not new. Last summer, the issue came up when then-Police Chief Gregory Burns Jr. and City of Lawrence officials suggested that the school district should help fund the SRO program. But that discussion became heated when board members pointed out the school district’s tight budget and when board President Melissa Johnson and Vice President Kelly Jones specifically expressed concerns on how the police officers may be treating marginalized groups, such as female students and students of color.

But Burns recently resigned from the police department, and it is unclear whether the funding discussions are continuing. Porter Arneill, a spokesman for the city, said he thought the request was still active, but it has been overshadowed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

photo by: Dylan Lysen

Lawrence school board vice president Kelly Jones, center, speaks to members of the Lawrence City Commission about issues she has with the school resource officer program during a meeting on July 10, 2019. Jones asked pointed questions about the program and said she has concerns about how it affects students of marginalized groups.

In the meantime, Johnson and Jones told the Journal-World recently that they still have concerns about SROs in Lawrence schools.

Jones said she thought that the action the Minneapolis school district took was the correct one for that community, and she asks herself whether the funds put toward Lawrence’s SRO program could be better used for mental health efforts in schools or improving equity practices in the city.

But Jones did not specifically say whether she supports or opposes the SRO program in Lawrence. Instead, she said if the community wants police officers in its school buildings, it should also demand that schools have safeguards in place. Those might include allowing the school district to have an active role in hiring the officers, requiring the officers to complete equity training, and updating language in the agreement between LPD and the school district to focus on “a young person’s right for dignity in discipline.”

Jones took a similar stance in January, when Lewis voiced his concerns about racial profiling. At that time, Johnson also said the school district should have some oversight over who is hired for those positions.

“I’m not anti-SRO, but it’s about doing it the right way and having the conversations (some) don’t want to have,” Johnson said in January, referring to discussing racial disparities in police contact with students.

When asked for her stance recently, Johnson did not say whether she supports or opposes the program, either. But she said in an email that Floyd’s death and the deaths of other African Americans at the hands of police officers have had a significant impact on her.

“Yes, I am a Black woman with Black children and am often left with the question, ‘Am I next? Are they next?'” she said in the email. “However, this effect isn’t simply based on recent events, it’s because excessive force that results in death from institutional racism is continuous and it doesn’t appear to be improving.”

Johnson noted that in a survey conducted last year of more than 1,000 students and more than 130 staff members, opinions varied on the use of police in schools. She said the data also showed there was a misconception about the role SROs are supposed to fill. The school district has put plans in place to address those misconceptions, she said, but she didn’t elaborate on what that entailed.

“Ultimately, my priority as a board member is ensuring that all students feel safe at school and that is what I’m committed to do,” Johnson said.

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