Former Madison SRO: Removing police from schools unlikely to reduce arrest disparity


    Corey Saffold served as a school resource officer for four years at Madison West High School. We asked about the implications of the end of the SRO program and removal of Madison police officers from the schools. Now the head of security at Verona Area School District, he repeatedly said he is only speaking on behalf of what he experienced as an individual.   

    Madison365: When and where did you serve as a School Resource Officer? 

    Corey: Madison West High School. I served for four years. The Madison Police Department only allows their officers to work four years then they like to give somebody else a chance to get in. There isn’t any good reason behind it. I think the reason is that there are other officers that like the schedule (of working in a school) and they try to get in there too.  In my opinion, if he or she is doing good then the SRO should stay there. This is how most other police districts do it, but Madison police do not. After four years he or she comes out, which I don’t think is smart but nonetheless their officers are out of schools now. So again, it doesn’t matter.  

    Madison365: What were the key responsibilities of SROs and what sort of education and training did you get to fulfill these responsibilities?

    Corey: The responsibilities are varied and it really depends on the type of system you are operating in. So when I was an SRO I really focused on education. Key responsibility for me was educating students that got into legal trouble, instead of charging them or punishing them. So my responsibility was a little different. I did that as cases naturally came to me. If there was a student that stole from the Co-op right around the corner I would immediately put a plan in place or they would pay for whatever it was. Then I would educate them on why this behavior cannot continue because my key responsibility was to think of any and every opportunity to respond restoratively. 

    Madison365: Did you get training to do this or is it your own way of working?

    Corey: No. It is really my own way of working. There is not much training that comes with having the desire to do restorative practices. It is up to the individual officer. Either you have the desire or you don’t. Which is why the success of the School Resource Officer program depends on three things—the culture of the police department, the program that is set up for the officer to work within, and the individual officers him or herself. The reason is that the individual officer has to really focus on restorative practices. He or she should have a desire to do everything in his power or her power to avoid arresting and citing students. Now there are going to be some instances that rise to the level where you have to arrest and give citations, but for the most part, you should be able to work around that, but that’s going to depend on that individual officer wanting to accomplish that, wanting to do it. 

    Madison365: Are SROs sufficiently trained for healthy and appropriate interventions? Can they identify a problem when it is to do with mental health rather than criminal behavior?

    Corey: The police department in general receives training like trauma-informed care or mental health training. I don’t know that there is anything separate that the SROs receive to work in the high schools. That’s why the vetting process for SROs is crucial, because you really have to pick a person that already has that understanding and training. The training you are referring to really is a department-wide training and officers receive it through the department, not necessarily because he or she is an SRO.

    Madison365: What would you say will be the biggest challenges facing Madison high schools now that SROs are no longer being used?

    Corey: I don’t know that there will be a problem. Once schools are back in session, things may start off normally, with the exception of COVID-19 or you may see a need to call the police. If a large incident arises and those extra resources like the social workers, counselors, behavior specialists, etc., need help, police will need to be called. That may happen on occasion and there isn’t anything unusual about that. The problem is now you don’t have that officer in school that has relationships with students.  The officer that responds could really listen to administration and really try to figure out restorative practices for the students, or he or she could not. Now you don’t know what type of response you’ll get, whereas if you have an officer in the school you know what their response would be. Hopefully, you have a good one that works with the administration. In Madison, they will argue that the presence of an officer in school is too traumatic based on the current climate of policing in our country, and I totally understand that. So it really is a hard question to answer.  All we can do is wait and see.

    Madison356: Do you think SROs played a major role in providing safety and security in the four Madison high schools? 

    Corey: I don’t want to speak generally for SROs, but I do think there is a lot that SROs do, that people do not realize. I think that, again, because they have a relationship with certain students. When I was in school there were a number of different incidents that students would do that people never heard about because I wouldn’t cite them, wouldn’t arrest them. Rather, I would educate them, but there is no way to really document that process. Capturing preventative measures is hard to do in terms of putting them into statistics. There is a lot that SROs are good at that people don’t understand and won’t ever know about it. I think you are going to lose that aspect once they’re out of schools. The counter-argument is what will students gain. They might gain more by not having an officer option in the school because again, the trauma with black people that we’re seeing. 

    Madison365: Can the SROs be replaced with social workers or other resources? 

    Corey: You talked about restorative justice. No, they can’t replace the SROs because if a student commits a crime you’d call the police because of that crime. In other words, break it down like this… if the gas station or the co-op near the school calls the police because a student steals from there, the police can say to the store owner, this student can go through the restorative process, and that restorative process is going to include paying the store back without being arrested or cited. A social worker, counselor, or school administrator cannot do that. They don’t have the authority to sanction or put in place such a program after a student has broken the law. Only the district attorney, city, or a police officer of the specific program can put that in place. You are not going to increase restorative practices through social workers and counselors because they don’t have the authority to do that officially by the law.  What they can do is try to reach out to the victim and ask the victim if he is willing to do a restorative process and maybe the victim would say yes. Only the police can say we are going to do this and even if the victim agrees or doesn’t agree, the police can still follow through on doing that. So that’s the difference. 

    Corey Saffold is also a musician. Photo by Hedi Lamarr Rudd.

    Madison365: The past three years of Madison Police Department website data show that Black students were disproportionately arrested in all four Madison high schools. Why do you think that was? How do you respond to claims that Black students suffer psychological damage as a result of being arrested, searched, and suspected of wrongdoing more frequently than other students?

    Corey: There many different reasons for that. When I was in West High School there was a program called Truancy Court initiated by the school administration where a student got a ticket at the request of the school. So now the schools go back and look at the data and say there are these increasing numbers and citations for Black students. Did they account for the citations they asked police to write? Because Truancy Court is not a police program, yet the school uses police to contact the student via writing a citation. That’s an issue.

    The other issue is the overall idea of writing citations in the school should be reexamined. In my opinion, restorative practices need to be utilized more. I’ve seen them work and be very effective. On the other hand, it might very well be a problem. It might be a situation where you want to take a step back and restructure the whole program to find out why the number of citations for Black students is much higher. There are other issues at play too than just with the police. There are also disparities with suspension rates, the number of black students being labeled as (emotionally or behaviorally disturbed), and the punitive measures of the school that pushes Blacks out of class more. Every time a student is not in class, it increases their chances of being introduced to the criminal justice system. That’s with or without an officer being in the school. Then there’s graduation rates. All those things play a part. 

    The police disparity is one that is quickly pointed out, as it should be, but there are other disparities that in my opinion do more damage. It is really about the overall big picture of what contributes to that number. It could be that the police need to reevaluate why that disparity exists, and take real steps to decrease the number without sacrificing effectiveness. The school would need to stop utilizing police to write citations for truancy. Then the school needs to ask the following questions: what is contributing to their disparities with suspension rates, harsher disciplines for Black students? And why are the police being called so much? The question you ask is a big question and it just doesn’t have one answer, unfortunately. Again, I can only speak for West High School and discuss how I operated at West High School, but I think that in schools where you have SROs of color, they build really deep relationships with the students. I, for 10 years straight, went with students on Historically Black College and University tours. I traveled with them, I stayed in the hotel with them. They couldn’t have felt traumatized by me being around because they wanted me to be around. I organized a basketball fundraiser that the students really enjoyed. But that was before George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Times quickly change. There are other officers that were effective in the schools. You had officer Roderick Johnson who was the SRO in La Follette and his students felt the same way about him. When we talk about students dealing with trauma caused by the police in schools, you have to break that down to the individual officer. What officer are you talking about, and what school? It cannot just be a general statement.

    Madison365: Do you think we need cops in schools, in general? In other countries it is uncommon. 

    Corey: I don’t think police have to be in schools. It’s not an absolute necessity. You asked, in general, do we need cops in schools. When you compare the day-to-day trauma that we are seeing now from police in general, it was different when I was a school officer. Everything really does have to come down to an individual basis. What school are you talking about? What type of program do they have and what type of officer do they have? I think that there can be good reasons to have police in schools. When you think about active shootings, that is a good reason. The average active shooting lasts four or five minutes and the average police response time is seven minutes, so police always arrive late, after it’s over. A school resource officer can stop that threat. That is one practical reason. Another practical reason is that the officers having a relationship with the students are going to do everything in their power to prevent the arrests from happening. Again it gets down to the individual officer.

    Madison365: Some school board members say ending the contract with the Madison Police Department will reduce the disproportionate arrests of African-American students. Do you agree?

    Corey: To be honest with you, school staff are still going to call the police when they want to. It’s like on one hand they’re saying it is going to end a disproportionate rate of African Americans being arrested, but the administration and the teachers and the staff at the school keep calling the police. And we can’t say, “don’t call the police” because if they feel a need to call, they feel a need to call. It is not going to drastically change the numbers. They still have to deal with their internal situations and incidents differently. You can get the police out of the school, but if you haven’t solved the internal problems of the school, and the school still relies on the police to manage its building, those numbers won’t change.