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Christina board debating role of police officers in schools

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The Christina School Board on Tuesday tabled a vote on renewing school resource officer contracts, saying it wants more time to debate the role of police in schools.

The yearly contract renewal was on the agenda as a routine matter, but board members said that in light of the ongoing national conversation about race and policing, the contracts deserve more attention this year.

“The moment that we’re in is incredibly powerful,” board member Claire O’Neal said. “Taking some time to reflect on this issue is something that we as a board owe to our community, and especially what we as a board owe to our persons of color who are students in our district and who are families in our district. I personally feel that we owe those communities more time and more thoughtfulness, so that this moment becomes a movement.”

Notably, none of the board members expressed support for removing officers from schools, as the Red Clay Consolidated School District is considering. However, members said they want to hear from students, parents and administrators before voting on the contracts July 7.

“This issue is much larger than the moment we’re in,” Board President Meredith Griffin said. “But if we let the moment we’re in pass without addressing the issue, or at least beginning a process that gets us where we want to be at some point in the future, we will have missed an opportunity.”

School resource officers, commonly referred to as SROs, are armed, uniformed police officers who undergo special training to work in schools.

The contracts would allocate a total of $872,000 to the Newark Police Department, Delaware State Police and Wilmington Police Department to continue stationing SROs at Christiana, Glasgow, Gauger-Cobbs, Shue-Medill, Kirk, Bancroft, Bayard and Douglass schools, plus two at Newark High School. The second officer was assigned to Newark High earlier this year in response to what police called a “dramatic increase” in crime there.

Between September and February, the SRO at Newark High handled 100 incidents and made 45 arrests. The arrests included 13 for disorderly conduct, 12 for assault or offensive touching, four for conspiracy, two for theft, two for terroristic threatening and two for marijuana possession. The rest were for other unspecified offenses, according to a breakdown released by police.

Board member George Evans expressed concern that SROs in schools can lead to a disproportionate number of arrests of black students. He noted that several years ago, Christina was investigated by the U.S. Department of Education for disciplining black students more harshly and frequently than white students.

“I think we ought to take some time to study what is happening to students, where the real impact is and where we need to invest resources,” Evans said, suggesting that some of the money normally allotted to police could be used for other programs. “It could be a combination of the two. But this is a large number, when in fact, we have persons who are not trained in terms of child psychology to get at the roots of what the problem may be for some students and put them on a path of being better students.”

Board member Keeley Powell said she has mixed feelings.

“My family has been helped by police. We’ve been hurt by police,” Powell said. “I have three black kids and a black husband. We’ve had the good and the bad, but I can tell you my most recent interaction with a school resource officer was when one helped me file a police report after I was called a racial slur in a Christina School District board meeting. If we hadn’t had that relationship with the Delaware State Police, it would have been more difficult for me to file that report, and that person was nothing but respectful to me.”

She said that she too, has concerns about disparities in how discipline is handled but added that as a parent, she likes knowing there is help available if something bad happens in one of the schools.

She said she doesn’t think the board can make a fully informed decision about changing the SRO program this summer and suggested it study the issue over the several months and consider changes for next year.

“I do not want to throw away relationships and agreements that we’ve had, that have worked, because of current events. But I can also say, I agree, this is the time to discuss it,” she said.

Board member Warren Howell said discipline discrepancies are not the fault of SROs but rather a systemic problem.

“Those numbers are askew because of the principals, assistant principals, teachers and others in the disciplinary chain in our schools,” Howell said. “We have to do a better job in training these folks in working with our students, all students, students of color, well just all students. All of these folks in schools have to do a better job in working and understanding how our children act and react in different situations.”

He added that in his experience, SROs are a benefit to schools.

“In the neighborhood of the school, our children have a neighborhood police officer that they are able to get along with, that they’re able to joke with, that they are able to see each and every day and that they know that if something goes down in their school, they have someone that they know that has their back. That’s what an SRO does,” he said.

Board member Fred Polaski agreed, saying that SROs form bonds with students.

“You hear stories over the years about how they develop relationship with students and help influence students in the right direction because they’re there to work with students and talk to them about things,” Polaski said.

“I believe that SROs are benefiting schools. If there’s something better, we need to know what that is before we decide to eliminate SROs,” he added.

Meanwhile, Stephanie Hartley, a parent and Christina employee, urged the board to eliminate SROs.

“My son already has two strikes against him. He’s a boy and he’s black,” Hartley said. “His beautiful skin color already negatively impacts his life in society. He has to live by different rules outside of school. He shouldn’t have to live by different rules inside of school, too.”

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