Editorial: Lawrence school board should think twice before scrapping SRO program

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

At a joint meeting of Lawrence city commissioners and school board members last week, a debate broke out on whether there is value in local police officers serving as resource officers in the community’s public schools.

At the same time that meeting was underway, construction crews were working on yet another expansion of a private school — Bishop Seabury Academy, in this case — to allow for more students to receive something other than a public education.

The two events aren’t directly related, but they do provide an interesting backdrop for an important question: Are the values of Lawrence public schools in harmony with the prevailing values of the community?

The debate over school resource officers — police officers who are predominantly stationed in a high school to do outreach and to serve as an important resource in school security plans — has brought this question into focus.

If you remember, the Lawrence school district is coming off a disturbing time period where there was a rash of weapons being brought to school and violence was being threatened. In an eight-day period in February, two guns and a Taser were brought by students into Lawrence High School, while at the same time parents were notified that a middle school student threatened to shoot another student, and a Free State high school student allegedly used social media to threaten a Lawrence High student.

The spate of incidents caused Superintendent Anthony Lewis to call for a pair of community forums on the issue of school security, student violence and other such issues. Lewis, who previously was a leader in the much larger Kansas City, Mo., school district, has come off as a credible and informed leader on the topic of school security. He urged the community to be thoughtful about the topic and avoid knee-jerk reactions. A group that Lewis put together created a list of topics to research. Metal detectors and clear backpacks at school buildings were on the list.

School board members in April were told research was still underway, then seemed to do what Lewis warned against: have a knee jerk reaction. A pair of board members — Kelly Jones and Shannon Kimball — tamped down the idea of using metal detectors or a clear backpack policy to improve school security. Maybe metal detectors and clear backpacks aren’t the right answer for Lawrence, but April’s discussion seemed naive on some levels. Board members spent time talking about how state lawmakers need to limit people’s access to firearms in the first place. There is no short-term political scenario where that happens in Kansas.

Now, last week, Jones began waving a red flag on whether school resource officers are even a good idea for Lawrence schools. Jones asked for data on how the SRO program affects marginalized groups, such as female students and students of color. She said studies have suggested that SRO programs can increase minority students’ risks of being arrested and could result in a path to future criminal activity.

Jones’ comments came off sounding like she was just trying to check a box on some progressive scorecard. Lawrence has had an SRO program since at least 2001. The district hasn’t already formed some opinions about its value in those 18 years?

The public likely has. The SRO program doesn’t solve all problems, as evidenced by the spate of weapons incidents. But the underlying philosophy seems sound. Police officers are experts in security, at a time when schools need more of it. An important bonus is that students get to learn how to interact with law enforcement and vice versa.

There are legitimate issues to debate on how to fund SRO positions. The city wants the district to help fund them, but the district may have some valid arguments against that approach. But it will be an unfortunate turn if the debate evolves into one about whether our students are being damaged by having such close proximity to law enforcement officers.

That feels like an effort to simply conflate some national policing issues that are unrelated to the value of SRO programs so that we can feel sufficiently progressive as a community.

If that is the case, let’s start talking about an SOS program. That is the message you send out when you’re adrift.

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