One of the hottest topics in Madison is whether or not educational resource officers (or EROs) are needed in our four public high schools. This discussion is happening amid a much larger conversation about police in America and their interactions with communities of color. Tragically, it seems every week we hear of another shooting, with little or no proactive steps being taken to stem the loss of life.
So it makes sense that we’d turn our eyes to the police who interact most regularly with children of color. What makes significantly less sense, is the lack of conversation or discussion with the entities and students who are actually in trenches being affected by this work. We’ve turned it into a political football, with talking points being superimposed on the issue (school-to-prison pipeline, safety of our students, occupying force, etc.) without any actual data.
Over the last three weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to dive deep into how the ERO functions at West High School. I was given access to Officer Corey Saffold, the administration, outside entities, and students of color. It doesn’t take long to realize that West is typical of most high schools in the United States. Students showboat in the halls, awkwardly flirt with one another, and sprint to class after hearing the bell. Security has been tightened since most of us older people have been in school. Guests can only gain entry after being buzzed in and are promptly required to state their business and sign in. A few doors down from the check-in/welcome station is the Officer Corey Saffold’s office.
Officer Corey Saffold
The first thing I noticed about Officer Corey is he’s big, has wicked dreads, and is black. He has a demeanor that’s calm and matter-of-fact. His office tells more of his story, with a picture of a beautiful bass hanging on one wall, thank-you cards on his bookstand, and motivational quotes over his desk.
Our conversation began by asking how he ended up in the job. EROs aren’t assigned like normal beat cops. They have to apply for the position, yet Saffold’s story is even more unique. He started as a security guard at the school years ago. When he joined the Madison Police Department, his goal was always to return to West as an ERO. The reason? Growing up, he got into ‘a bit of trouble,’ and had he continued down that path, he could have ended up in a very different place. He wanted to help other students avoid those pitfalls, and the school position offered a unique opportunity to do just that.
When asked what he’s most proud of, he brought up his success rate with helping using the restorative justice program in the school. He’s recently referred 29 students to the Youth Court program which boasts a 90 percent success rate in avoiding tickets or larger legal action, while giving the offending men and women the emotional tools and supports to avoid future incidents. He also loves his work with the Black Student Union where he regularly chaperons large group college visits.
During the time I spent with Officer Saffold, his interactions with the school were universally positive from students of every race. When he walked the halls or they visited him in his office, the emotional atmosphere didn’t change, and, in fact, the biggest contention was whether he or a student crossed the other up on the basketball court.
All of this is well and good, but for the clearest picture, we needed to go much deeper, and find less biased sources.
For over a decade, the Job Bank of Dane County has been running a restorative justice and peer-based alternative discipline system within our schools called Youth Court. In many ways, it’s the precursor to many of the current restorative justice initiatives happening in Madison. Lorrie Hurckes, who runs the Youth Court program at the high schools, has worked with the EROs in each of the schools, and given her commitment to seeing students avoid the criminal justice system, offered a more nuanced perspective.
My first question to her was her take on the EROs in schools?
Her answer: “It’s complicated.”
The reason? While she had tremendous respect and admiration for Officer Saffold and the work happening at West, each school has different ways and policies for how it uses its ERO. Those variables, along with individual administrations and officers, means each school operates differently. The deeper the relationship an individual officer has with the students at their school, the better the results. The times of greatest tension came when those relationships weren’t there.
The biggest stressor right now is simply the sheer amount of incorrect information about how schools and EROs operate. Judging by some of the voices in the discussion, you’d think ERO’s are harassing and ticketing students when they’re late for the bell or talking back to a teacher.
“[An ERO] is only brought in,” Principal Beth Thompson explained, “when the situation has escalated into a safety or security issue.”
Officer Saffold is brought into situations when a suspicious bag is found on the premise or a student brings illegal or dangerous contraband to the school. At this level, police need to be called. However, instead of calling the dispatch and getting an officer who doesn’t know the students or the school’s procedures, having an officer who is integrated into the fabric of the school and knows the students can make the incidents much less volatile.
The Gentle Protector
Perhaps what is most important is what the students think about EROs — especially students of color. Two African American students, a junior and a senior both from the Black Student Union, had opinions on the EROs. Due to school policies, they spoke with anonymity, but they were free to voice whatever thoughts they had on Officer Saffold.
Their comments were universally positive.
“He’s our homie.”
“We love him.”
These comments came the day after a fairly public, volatile incident had occurred at the school, and their opinion was that his presence was both measured yet in firm control of a dangerous situation.
“He keeps fights from starting just because we all know he’s here,” they said.
They also said Saffold has gone out of his way to help students with issues outside of school. New drivers will get parking or speeding tickets, and he’ll help them avoid fines by taking educational driver safety classes.
The most shocking, and, quite frankly, disappointing revelation was that during this whole discussion of EROs in schools, no one had brought the students into the discussion on any larger scale. Many of these young men and women who will be old enough to vote in November weren’t made aware of the conversation, let alone listened to.
These persepectives from West High School don’t mean that the status quo is great. There is always room for improvement in regards to EROs and schools. While it quickly became clear Officer Saffold is both respected and appreciated at West, it would be dangerous to assume the other three schools have as positive of relationships. Beyond that, even by Officer Corey’s own admission, there are areas to improve on.
Is there anything he’d want Madison to know about what the EROs do? “Honestly, I wish the community would trust us more,” Saffold says.
This is an incredibly noble, even non-negotiable, goal. However, trust primarily comes from two things: cultivated relationships and consistency over time. Currently, the EROs report directly to their lieutenant and indirectly to the school administration. Both of these are obviously needed, but there is no vehicle in place for the EROs to give updates to the community they’re stationed to serve: the students and their parents.
Solutions include having some kind of council, committee, or organization for the EROs to work with (made up of our school communities) that could provide a balance of diverse input from fresh eyes, accountability and updates about their school year, and with time, powerful advocates for their work into the larger Madison community. Finding ways to replicate the best practices of the officer at West (or those from East, Memorial, and La Fallotte for that matter) seems like a natural move. Finally, having school board members, Common Council alders, and police administrators actually talk to the students about the EROs are non-negotiable actions that need to be taken.