Would you child’s school be safer if they had a police officer? Assembly Republicans seem to think so. This week in the legislature, we had a public hearing on mandating School Resource Officers (SRO) in Wisconsin’s public schools. The legislation, AB69, would require each public school, including a charter school, to report any incident that occurs in a school building or on school grounds to local law enforcement.
The bill provides that, if 100 or more incidents occur in and on public school buildings and grounds during a school semester, and at least 25 of those incidents result in an arrest, the school must, no later than the first day of the next school year, employ or contract for the employment of a law enforcement officer as an armed school resource officer (SRO) to work at the school. Under the bill, “incident” is a defined term that includes violations of state and municipal disorderly conduct laws and certain crimes, including homicide, sexual assault, burglary, battery, and arson. However, the bill provides that, for purposes of counting the number of incidents that resulted in arrest, “incident” does not include incidents related to use or possession of alcohol, cigarettes, nicotine, tobacco products, or vaping devices.
While this might sound like a good idea, finances and logic are actually missing. First, the bill requires school districts to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for the officers; which is odd because those dollars are set to expire in 2024. So, the program is fiscally unsustainable. What is also untenable is the fact that this bill seeks to override locally elected school boards who create the budgets for their respective school districts. In the case of Milwaukee Public Schools and Madison Metropolitan School District, both boards voted to end their police contracts in 2020.
Madison schools had a formal School Resource Officer Program, where officers were assigned to a specific school; this has never been the case for MPS. MPS schools has a state mandated truancy abatement program called TABS, which was funded by state dollars. Those dollars funded officers whose duty it was to scour the city looking for school-aged children roaming the streets and take them to school or the district attendance center. This program was a partnership between the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee, and neither MPS nor the Boys and Girls Club operate the program any longer. What Milwaukee does have is the Department of School Safety, which hires 231 school safety assistants, who are in charge of campus-based conflict management. The safety assistants call Milwaukee police only when necessary.
Having worked in school districts with and without SROs, I actually don’t have a preference. I believe that to be a local decision. What I dislike is the continued police propaganda that is used to stoke fear within the community. We all want safe schools, no matter what community you live in. But to achieve that you must listen to the needs and wants of the community. They will give you the answer.