The role of school resource officers in Superior schools will be evaluated in the 2020-21 school year by a committee that includes parents, teachers, students and representatives from the Superior Police Department.
District Administrator Amy Starzecki said she plans to develop the committee by early fall to review data, sample policies and other information to determine what direction the district will go.
The school board briefly discussed adopting a policy outlining the school resource officers’ duties at its July 6 Committee of the Whole meeting. Starzecki said it was unusual for a district not to have a policy and that the district should have one if it continues to utilize school resource officers. Board members said they felt putting a policy in place now, when the role of school resource officers is under national scrutiny in the wake of protests against police brutality, would be going backward and giving the wrong message.
The Superior Police Department currently provides three full-time school resource officers to the district under a 1995 memorandum of understanding: one each at Superior High and Middle schools and an officer who covers the five elementary schools within city limits. Starzecki said the officers primarily assist in truancy matters and dealing with legal violations.
Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander said the program provides an opportunity for officers to build positive relationships with students, serves as a recruitment tool and keeps campuses safe.
“I’m familiar with the school-to-prison pipeline and the concerns that different groups have had. I agree,” Alexander said. “I don’t think a majority of behaviors and issues that happen in a school should be criminalized. That’s why I want our focus to be on community policing, building relationships and at the same time providing that safety and security the school should have.”
Nearly 50-year relationship
The partnership between the school district and police department dates back to 1972, according to retired Superior Police Officer Tom Johnson, who served as a resource officer in Superior schools for 27 years. The program was one of the first in the state, Alexander said. He attributed the program's longevity to the fact that it's been run as a community policing initiative.
Johnson called the school resource officer position invaluable.
“To me, school safety is paramount,” said the father of three. “You send your kids to school with the understanding that when they walk in the doors of the school that they’re going to be safe.”
Officers can serve as a deterrent at a time when mass school shootings are on an uptick. They are also able to tap into the pulse of what’s going on at schools to pinpoint possible threats and issues, he said.
“Most of our intelligence comes from students because we built a measure of trust,” Johnson said.
Dealing with truancy is another component of the job.
“In the state of Wisconsin, truancy does fall under juvenile intake and does have an intersection with the criminal justice system,” Alexander said. “But there, too, I think our focus isn’t necessarily on the enforcement side. The real focus is about finding out how we can get kids to be in school.”
Working with students, families
School resource officers look at root causes and try to connect families to resources to make attendance easier. Over the years, Alexander said, officers have even knocked on doors and picked kids up to bring them to school instead of formally writing them up.
“There needs to be a mechanism to be able to deal with persistent truancy, but I think early interventions are always better than some of the more harsher consequences,” the chief said.
Data compiled by the Superior Police Department indicates nearly a quarter of their 747 documented school-related calls in the 2019-20 school year dealt with truancy, accounting for the largest number of calls at 171. The next highest number of calls was community policing efforts at 91, or 12%.
Other calls that accounted for less than 10% each, included issues such as juvenile problems, alarms, suspicious circumstances/persons/vehicles, disorderly conduct, battery, suicide threats, theft and drug complaints.
Those numbers only show formal involvement. Johnson chaperoned athletic fan buses and Superior Days trips. He provided security at events, worked with the safety patrol and even shot his gun in the Superior High School physics classroom as part of a controlled lesson. He greeted staff and students in the halls daily.
“Officers interact with the schools, and students, in many different levels and manners that are not recorded with an incident number,” said Superior Police Officer Michael Kendall, the school resource officer for the district’s elementary schools.
In the 2019-20 school year, there were 239 cleared arrests reported at Superior schools. However, not all of those students actually went to jail. They received ordinance citations, referrals for state charges and referrals to Douglas County Health and Human Services. The majority, 152, were at Superior High School.
A review of the current partnership between the district and police department is a good idea, Alexander said.
“We’re working off a document from 1995, and it has very generic and loose terms,” he said.
Putting together a formal policy would be good particularly to give staff a better understanding of the school resource officers’ role, Alexander said. It would also formalize in writing the modern practices that are being used.
The district has a year to craft a policy. The current memorandum of understanding can only be terminated if written notice is given at least 90 days prior to the start of a new school term.
A committee process similar to the one that led to the development of a new dress code policy last school year will be used, Starzecki said.
Douglas County District Attorney Mark Fruehauf said 56 truancy cases have been referred to his office this year. Most of those were worked out between families and the county’s Department of Health and Human Services and didn’t result in a court filing.
When truancy first becomes an issue for a student, Fruehauf said state statute requires a multi-tiered approach. First the school meets with the parent or guardian to figure out the problem and look at options such as counseling, modified curriculum or an evaluation of the child.
If that doesn’t resolve the truancy issue, it is referred to the Health and Human Services Department for another meeting to identify problems and offer services. It is only referred to the District Attorney’s Office if those efforts fail to resolve the problem.
“Most truancy cases that make it to us are handled in juvenile court,” Fruehauf said.
On rare occasions, the situation results in a criminal court referral for the parent if they are contributing to the truancy.
Fruehauf said once the case makes it to his office, they try to work with the family in coordination with health and human services. If that is unsuccessful, a final hearing is held where the court will order certain conditions of the child and parents in an effort to correct the problem.
“The goal is never punishment in juvenile court truancy,” Fruehauf said. “We want kids to get to school.”