The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Board held a special meeting before last night’s board meeting to listen to the Education Resource Officer (ERO) Ad Hoc Committee’s recommendations for better integrating police officers in schools, which included strengthening partnerships with city, county and community organizations, and altering the uniforms EROs wear in schools. MMSD has a contract through the end of the school year with the Madison Police Department to provide EROs in Madison’s high schools.
The issue has been a contentious one, prompting angry testimony and protests from community members who have called for all police to be removed from schools. MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham acknowledged their concerns.
“We’ve been exploring something that is a paradox. Our EROs exists to keep students safe and we know that for some of students, our students of color, it is not that,” Cheatham said.
The ad hoc committee, which includes two board members and 10 community members were tasked with researching the implementation and effectiveness of EROs in MMSD schools. Last night, a few committee members addressed some of the concerns students, educators and families have about officers while providing a framework as to how to build a collaborative community in the interest of students.
“Students are placing a really great value on the work that our ERO officers are building but still the badge, the gun can still be intimidating,” MMSD Chief of Staff Ricardo Jara said.
Jara, who is also a member of the ad hoc committee, outlined some of the goals of the ERO program and ideas to strengthen partnership between administrators, educators and officers. He and other members of the committee said EROs view themselves as more than just officers but members of the community.
“The individual, the statistic racism, that’s real and it relies on everyone to solve that,” Jara said.
The committee focused on investing in students, particularly students of color, and integrating restorative justice into the culture of MMSD schools. This included investing in current and emerging leadership development, career development, and identity-affirming programming for youth of color while finding opportunities to involve families.
“If your school is investing in restorative justice practices, your ERO is along with that as well,” Madison West High School Dean of Students Patrice Hutchins said. “Restorative justice is an art and a science very much like teaching.”
Ad hoc committee member Hutchins said EROs should take notes on what’s happening within the school from staff so debriefings occur on a regular basis. She also said staff set the overall culture of restorative justice for both students and EROs, addressing biases against certain students.
“Being able to have open and honest dialogue is so important because it comes from us. A lot of times it comes from school staff and we have to challenge each other when it comes to that,” Hutchins said.
Madison East High School Assistant Principal Alex Thompson said this would be a great time to reevaluate the role of security in school while reconceptualizing safety in order to move towards a more holistic approach. The committee called for standardization of these roles in schools.
“EROs are used in very specific and concrete (ways), they have concrete guidelines,” he said.
One of the main recommendations of the committee included strengthening partnership with city, county and community organizations to keep youth out of the criminal justice system. The committee recommended reports on the ERO program should be viewed with a racial equity lens. While the committee proposed softer uniforms such as jeans and a t-shirt, officers will likely still have to carry weapons while on duty.
“He or she is not there to feed the prison pipeline, they are there to keep the students safe while also helping the community,” Memorial High School Social Worker and Committee Member Marques Flowers said.