By Keith T. Barber
The Local Reporter
By a vote of 5-1, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education approved a plan that maintains the current school resource officer [SRO] program with the exception of one middle school being assigned a pilot program that will utilize a full-time behavioral specialist rather than an SRO during the board’s regular meeting on June 16.
The motion, which was proposed by board member Rani Dasi, also stipulated the board will revisit the memorandum of understanding between the school system and the Chapel Hill and Carrboro police departments within 90 days. Board chair Deon Temne voted against the measure.
After a lengthy and sometimes heated discussion, Dasi put forth a compromise that made a slight revision to one of five options presented to the board by Superintendent Dr. Nyah Hamlett.
“What if we explore an option — we know what makes communities safe and that’s having the resources, that’s having restorative practices, that’s having counselors who can support emotional needs,” Dasi said. “What if we pilot that at a school and learn and help principals and the community see whether or not that’s a safer way than having a reactive body in the schools.”
The option selected by the CHCCS Board of Education also stipulates that SRO’s will be placed at each middle school and high school and provide support to elementary schools as needed. The option calls for school administrators, school climate and behavioral health professionals to lead student discipline and behavior interventions.
During the June 16 meeting, board members expressed a variety of perspectives on the school resource officer program and its effectiveness in improving overall school safety.
Board member Michael Sharp said the voluminous data collected by the school system over the past two years on the SRO program reassured him that the program is achieving its aim of improving school safety.
“My concerns about the program six months ago were mostly based on equity issues, and worrying about some kids who might be having negative interactions with SRO’s,” Sharp said. “So I basically changed my tune since we started this in that I feel like I would support having, continuing to have SRO’s in our schools, with the caveat of course that we make sure the rules are clearly delineated…and that we are continuing to keep an eye on the same concerns we brought up in the first place.”
However, for board member Riza Jenkins, the data collected by the school system over the past two years about interactions between SRO’s and students led her to a very different conclusion.
Jenkins expressed concern about discipline disparities among underrepresented and marginalized groups within the school system, based on the analysis of SRO interactions compiled by Chief Equity & Engagement Officer Rodney Trice.
“Black students are roughly…10 to 11 percent of our district, but when I looked at those numbers from the presentation, black students were actually — of these 171 interactions — were 39 percent of those interactions and Latinx students were 17 percent,” Jenkins stated. “So that really stuck out at me that we’re continuing this trend.”
Board member Ashton Powell asked Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue and Carrboro Police Chief Chris Atack pointed questions about SRO’s during the meeting and their officers’ willingness to adapt to the culture of the school system.
“How are you all going to change the police force to be reflecting what we’re trying to be?” Powell asked. “It’s not that I don’t want the SRO’s in there; I don’t want the American police force in my schools unless they make some changes. And you all can be the leaders of that in the country.”
Atack reflected on his experience as an SRO at McDougle Middle School in Carrboro in the early 2000’s in responding to Powell’s question.
“As an SRO, one of my points was to get to know folks in the school — get to know the students, get to know the students that maybe were at risk for other things in life, maybe had some disparities in their life, and disparities in school.” Atack said. “So if you followed me around, my point was to build relationships to the people who I would not necessarily automatically gravitate to.”
Chairman Deon Temne expressed his strong opposition to continuing the SRO program in the schools during a tense dialogue with Chief Blue and Chief Atack.
“My concern is for my children,” Temne said. “They should never have a relationship with you…I send them to school to get educated, not develop relationships with law enforcement.”
Temne referenced the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that occurred on May 24 on several occasions — stating that having a school resource officer on campus gives people a false sense of security.
“I really don’t want [police officers] on the campus at all because I cannot protect those children because I don’t know your intent,” Temne said. “Do we need law enforcement for securing our buildings? Yes. Do I need them to talk to little Johnny every day in the cafeteria? I disagree.”
Chief Blue said he understood Temne’s concerns and suggested revising the current memorandum of understanding [MOU] to better reflect the concerns of board members.
“If the conversation continues, then speaking to the concerns you have that are legitimate and I know others share those concerns, we can work around that,” Blue said. “Law enforcement’s role in the school probably should be pretty limited, and we hope that they’re never needed. But if they are needed, that specialization that the SRO can provide we believe is invaluable.”
Board member George Griffin said he fully supports the SRO program in the school system and expressed appreciation for Chief Blue and Chief Atack.
“Racism, gun violence, the public animosity right now towards one another is at a level in our society like I’ve never experienced in my lifetime,” Griffin said. “We all can acknowledge that and we all wish it was different but it’s not the times we live in.”
In the event of an emergency, Griffin said having an SRO call for help will be more effective than having an assistant principal call 911.
“That alone to me is worth the price,” Griffin said.
Chandra Friend, a teacher at East Chapel Hill High School, said she understands why the school board is reluctant to remove the SRO program, but she believes change is desperately needed.
“I don’t think it’s a good program, but I don’t think we have a good replacement yet,” Friend said. “I think that the best short-term scenario would be…to disarm the SROs…to have their gun and their Taser in a safe, which is what we recommend to families.”
“And then to be very, very diligent about data collection and to actively work towards coming up with a model that is not police-based — but that is going to take more time,” she added.