Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman told school board members on Monday the department realizes its officers in Cedar Rapids schools have been arresting Black students at a disproportionately high rate, but said he still supports the school resource officer program “100 percent.”
The Cedar Rapids Community School District has been re-examining its use of school resource officers (commonly referred to as SROs) after last month’s data from the state’s Department of Human Rights showed that Black students are six times more likely than white students to have a complaint filed against them.
Jerman and Lt. Cory McGarvey gave a presentation to the Board of Education on Monday using CRPD’s analysis of its data on arrests made by school resource officers. Less than 3 percent of CRCSD students were arrested by SROs in the years examined, according to Jerman.
The analysis, which examined data from the four school years from 2017-18 to 2020-21, showed that Black students are arrested at a higher rate than white students despite making up less of the school population. Research has shown Black and white students misbehave at similar rates.
Black students made up 54 percent of SRO arrests over the five years despite being about 19 percent of the district population. White students were 42 percent of arrests and about 63 percent of the population.
“We do acknowledge there is a disparity with arrests; however, the arrests are dictated by the behavior and are conducted in consultation with school administrators,” Jerman said. “… With that said, we are committed to working with the school district to keep our schools safe for all students and improving our school resource officer program.”
“Without hesitation, I can tell you that our schools are safer and better places for our youth to get a quality education with school resource officers,” Jerman told the board.
The district has been using school resource officers since January 2010. There are currently seven SROs within the district.
Four of the officers are at Jefferson, Washington, Kennedy and Metro high schools. One officer is at the Polk Alternative Education Center, and the other two are at McKinley and Roosevelt middle schools.
McGarvey said that the mission of the program has been the same since it began: to “develop positive relationships with the kids.” Developing a positive relationship with students helps the officer get to the root of any problems, build trust and serve as a positive role model, he added.
Each SRO needs a recommendation from a police supervisor, as well as a memo explaining their interest and experience with youth. Eligible applicants are then interviewed and scored by an interview panel with members of the CRPD, the district and the school where the vacancy is. The individuals then make a decision on whether or not to hire the individual.
“I’m extremely proud of our school resource officers, and I support this program 100 percent,” Jerman said. “Our school system will be safer with SROs, thereby making sure our community will be safer.”
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.
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.
“This program is worth every dollar you put into it. It’s worth every dollar we put,” McGarvey said. “We don’t feel like there’s need for major changes, but we realize and recognize we can do better.”
Following last month’s Board of Education meeting, the district asked parents, staff and community members to fill out an online survey, and held listening sessions to get more feedback. A survey was also sent to students.
Deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker presented some results of those efforts during Monday’s meeting.
The student survey received 1,813 responses. Out of those responses, 13 percent of students felt somewhat unsafe or very unsafe about having an SRO in their school. Kooiker said 24 percent of Black students said they felt somewhat unsafe or very unsafe.
The survey also asked about the level of comfort students feel being around an SRO. Kooiker said 17 percent of all students and 25 percent of Black students felt somewhat uncomfortable or very uncomfortable.
The community survey received 1,935 responses from parents, staff and community members.
Kooiker said 11 percent of respondents believed that students felt somewhat unsafe or very unsafe, and 10 percent believed students felt somewhat uncomfortable or very uncomfortable around SROs.
About 75 percent of the community respondents said they feel SROs are needed in schools.
Kooiker also mentioned themes that came up during the listening and feedback sessions that were held in-person last month. Individuals brought up how the school resource officers offer an opportunity to build relationships, provide a sense of safety and can connect students to additional resources.
However, individuals also brought up how the presence of SROs suggests schools are unsafe, and marginalized populations are perceived as the problem. The school-to-prison pipeline was brought up as a concern, as well as the need for more mental health support.
School board President Nancy Humbles said the numbers of Black and brown students being arrested, as well as students feeling uncomfortable with the resource officers around, is “concerning.”
“We want [students] to thrive in our district, and like you said, ‘every learner, future ready,’” Humbles said after Kooiker finished presenting. “But when I see numbers that the students that are being impacted and arrested are Black and brown, that is concerning. … Because if these children are being arrested in school, this follows them, and you cannot tell me that it does not.”
“If there’s not that comfort with the SROs, how are they going to thrive?” Humbles continued.
Humbles also pointed out that the schools with resource officers are also the schools that have a larger population of Black and brown students.
“What message are we sending out?” Humbles said. “Are we saying ‘brown and Black kids are problematic in our district, so let’s get SROs in there’? Because there’s bad behaviors all over.”
Board member Scot Reisinger asked if any of the parents or community members have asked for the program to be expanded because “it concerns me if we have people who are giving an opinion about what should happen” with police in schools with higher nonwhite student populations, “but they are not also asking for that same service” in their kids’ schools.
Kooiker said the topic has not been brought up, but it also hasn’t been directly asked of respondents.
“Why aren’t SROs in all schools?” Humbles asked, building off of Reisinger’s concern. “If we’re having SROs in schools, why aren’t they in all schools, and not just schools where they have a high percentage of brown and Black students?”
Kooiker said all the surveys and data presented will be taken into consideration as the district weighs next steps. The district will present a recommendation in August about the school resource officer program and next steps ahead of the 2021-22 school year.
“Our next step is we’re going to continue to analyze data,” Kooiker said, adding that each piece of data is important. “… We’re really looking on our side of what are some of the things as a system with procedures and practices, we need to revisit to set up all of our students for success and be better partners.”