Whether police officers should have a permanent presence within the school system, and what that presence might look like, is under debate in Rochester.
The Rochester School Board and members of the Rochester Police Department discussed the topic for nearly three hours Tuesday night. The conversation also included input from school principals and cabinet members, all speaking to varying degrees about the importance and pitfalls the SRO program can have for the school community.
The conversation came just a little over an hour after a jury found former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. Board Chairwoman Jean Marvin acknowledged that fact leading into the discussion.
"Today, especially, there has been tremendous emphasis and emotion about policing in this country," she said. "A lot of people are thinking about the relationship between the police and the people of this nation. This discussion is about the relationship that the School District has with our SROs .... we want to make this discussion specific to that, not overlooking for a second however how much impact national news has had — real impact — it's had on our families and our students."
The board didn't make any decisions about its contract with the City of Rochester for the SRO program. However, the two organizations will continue the discussion in months to come.
Part of the discussion included a review of the results from a recent survey the district sent out to community members about the SRO program.
One question asked "How important do you feel it is to have school resource officers in Rochester Public Schools?" Nearly 52% of the respondents indicated "very important." On the other end, 17.8% responded "not important."
Another question asked: "Do you believe school resource officers have a positive or negative impact on the school experience of students?" Of the respondents, 43% said "strongly positive." Nearly 10% responded "negative."
The district also issued a separate survey to staff members. In that survey, more than 63% of the respondents said it was "very important" to have resource officers in the schools.
Several board members noted, however, that although the results seemed to favor the use of school resource officers overall, it's important to look at the demographics of those who responded. Nearly 72% of the respondents to the community survey where white. A nearly identical percentage of respondents to the staff survey were white.
"There was some difference of experience based on what the race or ethnic category of the respondent was," said board member Cathy Nathan.
Board member Jess Garcia said they didn't have survey results that truly reflected the demographics of the district.
Reimagining the system
In addition to reviewing the results of the survey, those at the meeting spoke at length about how the SRO program currently functions and whether there should be any changes to it moving forward. For example, they clarified that, per the contract between the district and the city, officers are not involved in the discipline of students.
Marvin said they met with around 50 students from various schools about the School Resource Officer program. She said none of the students they spoke with had had an interaction with a resource officer beyond a simple conversation in passing.
Nonetheless, she said opinions among the students about the resource officers were "wildly different" from one another. Some supported it. Others said resource officers should not be in schools because they can trigger trauma in students. Marvin said one thing students consistently told them, however, is that the sight of the uniform is a source of unease.
There weren't any students who spoke during Tuesday's meeting.
The meeting did include multiple principals who spoke in favor of the SRO program. In particular, Phoenix Academy Principal Robert Scripture explained that he sees officers as a necessity for the safety of the students and the staff.
"For me, it really comes down to a safety perspective," he said. "We literally had teachers running down the hallway to get away from students that were going to assault them."
Garcia asked a number of questions, such as whether the program could be funded differently, or whether it could be structured differently. Could choices about school resource officers be made on the school level rather than on the district level, so that places like Phoenix Academy could have one if it felt necessary, but others could pass if they so chose?
Board member Karen MacLaughlin touched on that notion, as well.
"The world has changed in the last year," she said. "In what ways can we reimagine how the SROs are operating in the schools, as well?"
In response to a question about the issue, Rochester Police Chief Jim Franklin said he could not "in good conscience" allow officers to work in the schools without service weapons. However, he said he would be open to reconfiguring the program in other ways if need be. For example, he said they could look at changing the uniforms so SROs don't appear identical to normal officers, among other possible changes.
"I believe in the school resource officer program; I believe it's effective," Franklin said. "If you do take them out of the schools, you are creating, in my opinion, significant problems and challenges, not only for us in law enforcement, but also for the students."