Local activists are pushing for school resource officers to be removed from South Bend schools, and Black Lives Matter South Bend hosted a panel discussion on the matter Tuesday night.
Currently, the South Bend Community School Corporation spends roughly $500,000 annually on four school resource officers from the South Bend Police Department.
Adams and Riley High School each have one officer, and the other two officers split their time between four middle schools — Jefferson, LaSalle, Jackson and Edison.
Some district schools have slots for SROs, but currently don’t have any due to a lack of police personnel.
South Bend Community School Corporation board member Leslie Wesley was the only school official on the Tuesday night panel. She said the district and police department currently operate under a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, dating back to 2012.
However, it is indefinite and will thus continue until one or both parties agree to end or modify it.
Some panelists, including South Bend NAACP president Trina Robinson, want a new MOU that clearly identifies the roles and responsibilities of SROs.
Wesley said she wants to keep the officers, citing student safety, but wants their title to be changed to something along the lines of a life coach.
“I’ve watched SRO officers feed children,” Wesley said. “I’ve watched SRO officers be social workers. I’ve watched SRO officers be counselors. I’ve watched them be teachers, I’ve watched them be friends.”
But other panelists want cops out of schools completely. That includes Regina Williams-Preston of BLM South Bend.
“There should be no agreement,” Williams-Preston said. “We do not need police in schools. Period. Full stop.”
She said the data shows police don’t make schools safer, and that the mentorship SROs provide can be done by other people.
“Any adult with the right focus, and heart and training can be there to be enough support,” Williams-Preston said. “We just have to stop investing in strategies that don’t work.”
Panelist Paul Mishler, with the Michiana Alliance Against Racist & Political Repression, agreed.
“The training of police is to deal with criminals,” Mishler said. “How can people who are trained to do that, to occupy and control, to face violence and see people at their worst — how can they deal with young people?”
According to state data, Indiana SROs arrest Black students at twice the rate of white students.
And national research has found that schools with SROs are more likely to have students referred to law enforcement, including for low level offenses, than schools without SROs. Arrested students are also less likely to graduate and more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system.
Wesley said the national data is all well and good, but she wants to see detailed local data.
“I’d like to see the study here in South Bend,” Wesley said. “Let’s hear from the students.”
Several other panelists supported a survey but said it would need to be conducted by a third party instead of the district to ensure impartiality.
Williams-Preston said they want to see recent data on arrests, interactions and use of force by SROs.
“When I talk to young people, they are telling us that children are being tased,” Williams-Preston said. “I’ve actually heard from other police officers — ‘Oh yeah, the county officers do that. That’s not us.’”
“But we have no data on it,” she added.
Panelist Drew Duncan, with NAACP South Bend, said there is popular support for removing SROs. They are currently doing a door-to-door petition drive with the goal of pressuring the board to remove the officers.
“There’s this narrative that’s been peddled to the public, that there’s this huge plethora of support in the community to keep police officers in schools,” Duncan said. “And that’s a lie, and I can say that without being anecdotal because I’ve been to the doors.”
He said support for removing SROs has come from both white and Black residents.
“When I see a sign that says proud union, when I see a Trump flag, whatever,” Duncan said. “We knock at every door because every student matters to us.”
They hope to have 5,000 signatures by the end of the month.
“I want to see people ignore us then,” Duncan said. “People are shocked at the amount of money being spent, they’re shocked when they hear the stories, they’re shocked when they find out there’s only four police officers, they’re shocked that we just voted on a referendum and money is being spent this way, and they’re shocked that the MOU hasn’t been updated.”
As for how the SROs could be phased out, Williams-Preston said it could be immediate with no consequences. Robinson suggested an expanded role for the existing school security guards, who are present in addition to SROs.
“They should be trained on restorative justice,” Robinson said. “Those dollars can be utilized to train those individuals who have a relationship with our students and have a relationship with the parents of those students.”
At least one South Bend Community School Corporation student was present during the panel. When the group took questions from the public, she identified herself as a new student at Washington High School, where there are currently no SROs.
Instead, there are more security guards. Before starting at Washington, she attended John Glenn School Corporation in Walkerton and was one of four black students. She said the SROs there made her uncomfortable.
“At Washington, I’ve never felt more comfortable,” she said. “I feel like that shows we don’t need police in our schools, we don’t.”
When reached via email, SBPD spokesperson Christine Karsten said the department had no further comment at this time, but has held a series of public meetings on the topic and is continuing the conversation with the South Bend Community School Corporation.
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