In recent weeks, there has been much attention given to the roles of police in our schools and the contract between the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) and the City of Madison for Educational Resource Officers (EROs) in our four comprehensive high schools. As members of the Board of Education we welcome that attention, and value all of the diverse viewpoints we have heard expressed by students, staff, and concerned members of our community. This kind of input is crucial to helping us arrive at the best possible policies. However, there seems to be some misunderstandings about the program, and the contract negotiation process, and these can be counter-productive.
As negotiations begin today, we would like to take this opportunity to provide some background and an update.
EROs have been valued members of our school communities for 18 years, with their selection, training, roles, and the financial arrangements defined via a series of three-year contracts. In recent years, MMSD has funded all or almost all of the costs, totaling nearly $400,000 annually. The last contract expired in June, and negotiations on a successor contract have been taking place on-and-off for most of the year. Both parties expected a new contract to be approved prior to the start of the school year. When that did not happen, the Board of Education and the City agreed to a 45-day extension. That extension runs until October 15, but there are some scheduling and public process requirements that push the date for an agreement earlier.
At no point in this process has the Board of Education or any member proposed, or expressed a desire to end the program. Instead, we have pursued cost-sharing and program improvements. Relatively early, the City agreed to accept responsibility for $4,500 of training costs, but made it clear they were not open to greater funding of their officers in our schools. The District has accepted this, leaving program improvement as the focus of negotiations.
Over the last years, our nation and our community have been engaged in an overdue examination of policing, particularly in relation to race, mental health, disabilities, and inequalities. The recent action by the City commissioning a study of policing is an important step forward. Through our work on the Behavioral Education Plan (BEP), the Board and the District have examined, and are working to address related issues in what has been come to be called the “school to prison pipeline.” The ERO contract is one part of this.
We have learned that in addition to enhancing the sense of safety for many of our staff and students, in numerous ways EROs have been a positive force in disrupting that pipeline, in helping our students negotiate difficult situations. However, we have also seen the statistics of students cited and arrested on relatively minor charges, and the great disparities of the impacts of these actions; and we have heard the stories of students who feel less safe and welcome because there are full-time police in our building, as well as the testimony of those who work with youth in our jail about futures put at risk because of youthful mistakes.
Improving the program means enhancing the good our EROs do, while minimizing and mitigating the potential for harm. This isn’t easy, but we believe it is possible. In partnership with the City, and with the involvement of our community, we would like to try. We would like to explore a more formal partnership, with regular evaluations and adjustments. We would like to explore limits on citations and arrests for minor or non-violent offenses, as are in place in Broward Co., FL, and Huntsville, AL. We would like to explore more fully and formally integrating our EROs into our systems to support positive behavior. There are many things we would like to explore. In fact, just last week, on September 8, the Obama Administration released resources to help school districts ensure appropriate use of EROs. We want to be able to review these new resources in partnership with the City to ensure that our approach aligns with national best practices for police officers in schools.
For all these reasons, the Board has requested a shorter contract. Whether it is a one, two or three-year contract, our goal is not simply to renew a three-year agreement that has changed little from what has been in place for 18 years. We would like to continue under the negotiated terms, while working for something better. We don’t anticipate a series of one-year contracts, but view this as a one-time effort. We share the City’s desire for stability in staffing and budgeting, but believe that, with good-faith discussions, we should be able to accommodate the budgeting and hiring timelines of the City without sacrificing our efforts to get policing in our schools right.