La Crosse Board of Education discusses future of SROs, police department funding

School Resource Officers have been with the district since 1993

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Protests against police brutality and calls for reform have reached the very fiber of cities across the U.S., and among some of those calls includes recognizing systemic racism and reducing police presence in our local schools.

The La Crosse Board of Education met for a late-night workshop after adjourning its meeting on Monday to discuss the upcoming vote on the budget this fall, more specifically what to do with the funding that is allocated to the La Crosse Police Department.

President Laurie Cooper Stoll highlighted funding for the school district’s Police Liaison Program (Community Services Fund Levy, 80), which is now 27 years old, and is provided with assistance from the Police Department.

Under the Police Liaison program are School Resource Officers, or SROs, who first entered the school district in 1993 with a single officer. In 1999 the district was awarded a Community Oriented Policing Services Grant (C.O.P.S.), allowing the city and school board to add officers in middle schools as well. Since then the district has had five SROs, and an additional officer that does D.A.R.E work at area elementary schools.

According to Cooper Stoll, who referenced an August 2017 presentation by Curt Teff, Dir. of Community Services for the La Crosse School District, these SROs have three broad functions.

  1. Establish trusting relationships, relational support 
  2. Safety and enforcement
  3. Systems reform

According to the 2017 presentation by Teff, ‘Systems reforms’ is the function that the police liaison program should be focusing on the most, because La Crosse has a very high juvenile arrest rate – most of which happen during the school day. Research shows that students who receive tickets or are arrested in school are six times more likely to drop out.

Another concern for the La Crosse School District is mandated training for SROs.

“To be clear, our SROs are trained first and foremost as police officers, and while our district may set up expectations about the professional development that SROs undergo, there is not a state law in Wisconsin that mandates SROs have a specialized training to work with students,” said Cooper Stoll.

Only 11 states require specialized training for officers to work with students in schools and Wisconsin is not one of them.

The largest and most timely concern for the La Crosse Board of Education, however, is whether or not to renew its contract with the police department which expires June 2021.

In the 2015-16 budget, the board paid the La Crosse Police Department $170,000, and in the 2018-19 budget year that number exponentially grew to $250,000.

Under the budget book’s definition of SROs it states…

Liaisons serve as a visual testament to the districts commitment to safety and security for students, staff, visitors, and the community.

According to President Cooper Stoll this statement does not represent minorities.

“There is no conclusive empirical evidence that shows having police officers in schools makes them safer,” said Cooper Stoll. “However there is ample evidence to show that it makes black and brown students less safe. Over 90% of students that are suspended in our schools are students of color.” (Update below)

She also admitted she does not feel comfortable renewing the contract in the fall as it stands, and suggested creating a subcommittee to discuss ways to reallocate the police department’s funding.

She says forming an SRO subcommittee does not necessarily mean there would be no officers in schools. It would, instead, combine stakeholders to share their own experiences and opinions on the future of collaborating with the police department.

“When I say talk to stakeholders it includes folks who have a vested interest in that. And that should include parents, and that should include students,” explained Cooper Stoll. “If we do not renew that contract, what might we use those monies for?”

UPDATE: “In an update from School Board President, Dr. Laurie Cooper Stoll and Superintendent Aaron Engel, 46% of suspensions in the district are for students of color, not 90% as originally reported.” Engel continued, students of color make up only 30% of the student body. The rate of out-of-school suspension is 65% higher for students of color. For Black students, the out-of-school suspension rate is five times higher than that of white students. 

The board has not made a decision yet on whether it will form a subcommittee and will be holding another workshop next Monday, June 22.

A vote on the district’s budget happens in the fall.

You can watch the June 15 FULL La Crosse Board of Education meeting followed by the workshop here.