The Wake County school system will continue to have police officers in schools, despite calls from some students and groups to replace law enforcement with more counselors.
The Wake County school board’s safety and security committee agreed Wednesday not to continue discussion of dropping the school resource officer program, which provides 75 armed officers at high schools, middle schools and some elementary schools across the county.
Instead, the committee agreed to continue working on a new memorandum of understanding governing SROs while also trying to address the concerns of minority students who feel threatened by officers.
“(We will) continue working with our community and seeking input from our partners in the community to think creatively about ways that we could continue to modify the program that best serve the needs of all of our students, but particularly our Black and brown students who don’t always feel as comfortable or as welcoming,” school board chairman Keith Sutton said at the meeting.
The current agreement governing the duties of school resource officers expires in June, along with the contracts that Wake has with different law enforcement agencies to pay for the officers.
School board member Jim Martin has been among those who’ve raised concerns over the years about policing in schools. But Martin said he doesn’t think the district has the time to create something entirely new.
“I recognize that we need some relationship with law enforcement, whatever we want to call it,” Martin said at the meeting. “Now we call it SROs. I don’t think we want to get to a stage where the only interaction with law enforcement is call 911, because I think that creates a worse situation than we currently have.”
Concerns about overpolicing
The debate about police in schools comes following last summer’s national backlash over the deaths of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of white police officers. Some school districts around the country responded by canceling their school resource officer contracts.
The Wake County Black Student Coalition held multiple protests calling for “counselors, not cops.” Instead of spending $1.7 million a year on police in schools, the coalition wants Wake to pay for the California-based PeaceBuilders program. For a fee, PeaceBuilders trains school staff on how to promote a positive school environment.
Critics of police in schools point to how Black students accounted for 73% of Wake’s school-based delinquency complaints but only make up 22% of the district’s enrollment.
“I am concerned that school resource officers are unknowingly pushing Black and Brown students toward the school-to-prison and to the school-to-deportation pipeline,” Rebecca Poling, a retired healthcare professional, wrote in comments submitted to last week’s school board meeting.
School board member Christine Kushner said they need to acknowledge concerns about the “pandemic of overpolicing of Black and brown people.”
“Many of our Black and brown students feel that they have trauma coming into our schools and seeing police officers,” Kushner said at the meeting. “We have to recognize that and also see what could we have in their stead.”
Kushner talked about efforts such as having more counselors and mental health teams to help students. But she also said Wake should strengthen the memorandum of understanding rather than eliminate the SRO program.
School staff want SROs
Wake conducted online surveys in which school employees tended to have a more positive perception of school resource officers than students.
While 77% of school staff felt school resource officers help create a welcome environment at school, only 52% of students thought so.
While 88.9% of school staff felt that most students are treated appropriately by the school resource officer, only 60.8% of students thought so.
Sutton, who also chairs the safety committee, said too many students didn’t give a positive response about SROs.
“We want all students and all faculty and all employees to feel welcome when they come into the building no matter what,” Sutton said.
School board member Heather Scott said local police agencies overwhelmingly want to do what’s in the best interests of students and to make sure they feel comfortable.
“If we’re going to have police in our schools, the ideal role is for them to be there as a support, as a mentor, as someone who is there to help and care for our children and the employees in the building,” Scott said at the meeting.