The Cedar Rapids Community School District (CRCSD) presented its recommended changes to the school resource officer program during Monday’s Board of Education meeting.
A total of 14 recommendations were shared by district staff during the three-hour-long meeting, including removing the two school resource officers at McKinley and Roosevelt middle schools.
Other recommendations included having the remaining five SROs wear “soft” uniforms; utilizing diversion programs for first offenses whenever possible; and informing parents, guardians and students of their rights when interacting with an SRO. The district also recommended having the school officers be involved only in “serious criminal matters” and minimizing involvement of the officers in implementing school rules.
According to a district official, CRCSD is also committed to substituting a restorative approach to discipline in place of a punitive one.
“If we want every learner future ready, we need our students in school,” Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said. “Suspending them and arresting them is not the answer. We need to shift our focus to other forms of consequences that remediate, provide support, restore and change the narrative for our students.”
CRCSD began reexamining its use of school resource officers earlier this summer after data from the Iowa Department of Human Rights showed Black students were six times more likely than white students to have a complaint filed against them. Data from the Cedar Rapids Police Department showed Black students are also arrested in school at a disproportionate rate.
CRPD acknowledged the racial disparities in arrests but Lt. Cory McGarvey told the board last month that does not mean “major changes” are needed to the SRO program. Police Chief Wayne Jerman said at the same meeting he supports the SRO program “100 percent.”
The district has been using school resource officers since January 2010. There was “no large culminating event” that led to the start of the SRO program in the district, Kooiker said earlier this summer.
Four of the officers are at Jefferson, Washington, Kennedy and Metro high schools. One officer is at the Polk Alternative Education Center. The two officers who were at McKinley and Roosevelt middle schools were removed prior to the 2021-22 school year, which began on Monday.
CRCSD has an agreement with the City of Cedar Rapids for the SRO program. The last contract was approved by the school board on April 27, 2020, and costs $1,905,198 over two years. Half is paid by the district and the other half is paid by CRPD.
This comes out to about $134,000 per school resource officer, Kooiker said.
The two-year contract ends on June 30, 2022, but the district or police department are allowed to end the contract with a 30-day written notice.
Prior to the presentation on Monday, community members had a chance to address the board during the public comment period. A total of 21 individuals spoke, including CRCSD staff, parents, students, members of the Advocates of Social Justice and other community members.
Approximately half of the speakers shared their support for the program, highlighting how the SROs connect with students and build relationships with them and their families. Some of the district staff expressed their jobs would be more challenging were it not for the SROs.
The other half of speakers discussed the problem of the school-to-prison pipeline — a description of disciplinary system that criminalizes young people of color for behavior that would be handled without the involvement of law enforcement elsewhere — and expressed other concerns about how the SRO program negatively impacts students of color, as well as the problem of students not understanding their rights when interacting with a police officer in school.
In making its recommendations, district staff said they looked at data and results from a number of surveys and feedback sessions. District surveys found that one in four Black students indicated they felt uncomfortable or very uncomfortable around their SRO. One in four students who identified as two or more races also felt this way.
CRCSD also reached out to other school districts, including the Des Moines Independent Community School District and the Iowa City Community School District.
The Des Moines school district moved to end its SRO program earlier this year, shifting from a punitive to restorative approach, Kooiker said. The SROs in Des Moines will be replaced with restoration and safety coordinators, campus monitors and restoration facilitators over the next two years.
Iowa City schools never had school resource officers. Kooiker said the ICCSD does have a safety team that explored if SROs should be implemented and decided against it.
“I love the quote from them: ‘We can’t make some students feel more safe by making other students less safe.’ I think that’s extremely powerful when you think about our entire system,” Kooiker said. “I know people think well, you know, majority wins in things. Majority doesn’t win in a situation where there’s kids that don’t feel safe within the walls of our buildings.”
The 14 recommendations the district shared are part of a goal to reduce arrests and charges by 50 percent or more, as well as reduce the disproportionality of arrests of Black students by 50 percent or more, Kooiker said. The CRPD has agreed to provide monthly, detailed reports to the district, as well as meet with district leadership on a quarterly basis to review data and the program.
The soft uniform SROs would wear would be a polo top and khaki pants with a belt that holds the officer’s tools and weapons. The district and CRPD did discuss the possibility of SROs not carrying a gun, but that was something the police department did not want to agree to, Kooiker said.
At this time, the district did not recommend removing the school resource officers at the four high schools and at Polk Alternative Education Center.
Board president Nancy Humbles pointed out it was high school students who initially brought up concerns about the SRO program.
“I also want us to remember this topic came to us based on high school students from the [Black Student Union] that had a concern about the SROs in the high schools,” Humbles said. “I think we have to step back too and look at that. I know we’re saying not the middle schools, but this originated from students coming forward that were high school students and how they were feeling with the SROs in the school. So I don’t want that to get lost in our discussion.”
Board member Dexter Merschbrock asked if there was thought given to removing the SROs from all schools.
Kooiker said there has “absolutely” been a discussion within the district but it has not been something discussed with CRPD.
“We haven’t really given [CRPD] an opportunity to do things differently and given them direction of what we need, so this provides us that time in our high schools, in addition in Polk, to really make this look different, and partner and work together,” Kooiker said.
Superintendent Noreen Bush added that the recommendations and discussion are the “first step” in changes to make the program better for CRCSD students.
The board will vote on the recommendations during its next meeting on Monday, Sept. 13. The changes would be effective for this current school year, and the district would work with CRPD to make amendments and changes to the current contract, Kooiker said.