DeKALB – The DeKalb School District 428 board is grappling with a proposal to add more school police resource officers to the district payroll next year, although board members said the staffing isn’t likely to fix a rampant rise in student behavioral issues.
During the recent District 428 board meeting, board member Jeromy Olson said behavioral issues are “the No. 1 problem facing our district right now.” Olson’s comment was made as the school board reviewed a request to double the number of school resource officers in the district from three to six.
The school board held an impassioned discussion on the issue April 5, and plans to vote on the proposal at its April 19 meeting.
Olson said he recently discussed the issues during a breakfast meeting with Superintendent Minerva Garcia-Sanchez, DeKalb Mayor Cohen Barnes, DeKalb City Manager Bill Nicklas and DeKalb Chief of Police David Byrd.
“One of the things we discussed in that meeting was the acknowledgement that we can’t police ourselves out of this problem, and there has to be a very clear and implemented plan to address a lot of these issues,” Olson said. “It’s not just the district that’s working on it. Actually, it’s the rest of the community as well.”
The mayor, city manager and police chief were invited to the school board meeting April 19 to take part in what district officials said was meant to be an open community discussion on the topic.
Board President Sarah Moses said hiring more SROs could be akin to putting a Band-Aid on a larger issue.
“Bringing more SROs into our schools isn’t going to solve any of these problems. We need to figure out why we’re having these problems,” Moses said. “I think the last thing we really want to have is … to bring more police into our schools if we’re not focused on investigating why the issues are happening.”
The school district currently has one SRO at DeKalb High School, one SRO split between its two middle schools and a third SRO split between its eight elementary schools. The school district has an intergovernmental agreement with the DeKalb Police Department to share costs of their salaries and benefits at a rate of 75% of their contract, according to the documents.
The cost for the 2021-22 school year was approximately $143,000 for each of the SROs, for a total cost of $430,000.
The requested SRO positions would provide one additional SRO to DeKalb High School, one to the two middle schools and one shared among the elementary schools. The three SROs would cost the district $430,000.
“My biggest concern is that we’re talking about investing half a million dollars of tax payer money,” Olson said. “We have an issue with behavior, but there’s no direct line of communication, figuring out it’s being affected at home and being affected at school and putting it all together. I think our focus should be there rather than just putting more police presence in our schools.”
Parents voice their concerns
Megan Jackson, a mom of four children in the school district, told the school board her daughter has experienced behavioral-issue trauma in the classroom, and now suffers from anxiety, panic attacks and depression.
“[There were] classroom evacuations, thrown chairs, broken windows, fights, sexually explicit language from fellow classmates,” Jackson said. “Staff tried their best, but there wasn’t enough help to support the students’ significant needs. … Buildings throughout the district are in a reactive state instead of being proactive.”
Parent Marcus Montgomery spoke about what he called escalating violence in the school district.
“It happens on a daily basis in every school across the entire district,” Montgomery said. “It’s a district-wide problem.”
Moses called into question whether more district spending was the proper solution to mitigating problems.
“What are those issues that we need to be focusing on to make sure that … we’re catching our students early on, tracking those behaviors, understanding trends...and implementing programming to make sure those things are being addressed versus hiring police officers to come in,” Moses said.
Board Member Samantha McDavid said that she does not see the topic as a choice between more SROs and solving behavioral issues.
“I didn’t think it was a ‘this or that,’ I thought it was a ‘this and that,’” McDavid said. “We are already doing these other things to address this, and it was brought to us that … our SROs themselves don’t feel supported because our staff is not able to support them the way that they need.”
Garcia-Sanchez said that the request for more officers came by district officials after data showed SROs responded over the past semester to an increase in behavior-related police calls.
Since the beginning of the school year, the DeKalb High School SRO responded to 418 calls for police service, according to district documents. The reasons for these calls include, but are not limited to, fights, gun threats, drug possession and/or distribution and general intimidation.
As part of DeKalb city ordinance, individuals who fight within city limits are issued a citation, according to the documents. When fights occur in schools, the SRO is responsible for issuing the citations. Since the beginning of the school year, more than 30 fights at district schools resulted in citations to those involved, according to the district documents.
Since classes began in August, the school resource officer for Huntley and Clinton Rosette middle schools has responded to 301 calls for police intervention.
Since the beginning of the school year, 12 citations and police reports also were the results of battery reported at DeKalb schools, according to the documents. Additional reasons for police involvement for incidents throughout the school year have included theft, drug activity, sex offenses and disorderly conduct of a juvenile.
“SROS have been responding to an exorbitant amount of calls for police, and … in order to be more efficient and supportive, that’s what the [meeting agenda] recommendation was,” Garcia-Sanchez said. “It’s not the be-all, end-all of the issue, and there are a lot of other things we’re developing and going to be developing into place. However, that does take time.”
In response to parents’ comments, Olson said that the school district plans to change its approach to behavioral issues.
“This fall, the goal is to have a very well-structured and implemented plan to improve in those behavioral areas; it will be rolled out to all of our student body,” Olson said. “There will be updated training for all of our teachers and SROs on de-escalation protocols.”
Moses said the situation was dire.
“That’s why I’m asking the questions about what are we doing in addition to adding SROs?” Moses said. “How is it going? Because it doesn’t seem like it’s going very well. Everything seems a little chaotic.”
Board member Amanda Harness said the school district needs a plan to deal with behavioral issues moving forward.
“We have to start setting the groundwork and have a plan, rather than just saying we’re going to put SROs in there, slap a Band-Aid and move on,” Harness said. “We really need a plan, and it needs to be activated.”