Negotiating the Role of Police in Schools

Madison high schools currently have one Educational Resource Officer (ERO), who is a City of Madison police officer, not a school district employee, assigned at each high school. The school district and the city have a contract for those officers to be in place for the 2018-19 school year. As a result of the most recent contract negotiations with the city, the Board of Education created the ERO Ad Hoc Committee to study the impact of officers in schools. Last week, on September 26th, after many meetings, some of which were very acrimonious, the ERO Ad Hoc Committee issued its report to the Board of Education. Although many advocates for have been fighting to to reduce Madison’s racial disparities, as well as the constant influx of predominantly students of color and those with disabilities into the school to prison pipeline, have called for the removal of police permanently assigned to schools, the ERO Ad Hoc Committee endorses the idea of continuing police presence in Madison’s high schools.

school to prison pipeline

Although the ERO Ad Hoc Committee endorses continuing police presence in Madison’s high schools, it does so with a number of important caveats. It bases those caveats on what it learned after 18 meetings.

We learned that there are many students in our schools whose needs are not being met by the current educational environment. We learned of the myriad ways in which school staff and leadership recognize EROs as an essential support for students and school safety. We also learned that the presence of EROs can needlessly contribute to the criminalization of student behavior and negatively affect students’ sense of safety and belonging.

We recognize the impacts of police officers in our school sites as part of larger system and society-wide disparities, moderated largely by race, economic and ability statuses. In making these recommendations we are attempting to balance the needs and safety of all students and staff without prioritizing one groups’ safety and wellbeing over another. We recognize that the current educational environment has supported the success of some students but given the disparities in student success, we have evaluated the role of EROs in that environment to encourage success of all students.

Based on what the committee learned and recognizes, the committee went on to state that:

We recommend that the Madison Metropolitan School District work with the school community to identify and strive to achieve conditions where all members of the school community feel safe, and no members of the school community feel unreasonably criminalized or disproportionately targeted with police interaction.

Specifically, the committee made 16 recommendations, the most important of which are:

  • Each school have a designated primary contact at the administrator level so that if an officer is needed, clear lines of communication are in place to ensure that the presence of the officers who respond will be less likely to escalate a potentially volatile situation.
  • A well-defined complaint procedure, independent from the official MPD grievance procedure, should be added to the ERO contract. This procedure should be readily available to all students, parents/caregivers of students, and staff.
  • The contract grant MMSD veto authority over the selection and assignment of EROs.
  • The contract grant the MMSD Board of Education the authority to remove an ERO from their assignment for cause.
  • MMSD continue and improve ongoing public reporting/record keeping requirements in each school and the district. At a minimum provide disaggregated data (by race, gender, disability status, and by category of offense to the extent allowed by privacy statutes) on the number of calls to classrooms EROs receive, the proportion of those that pertain to criminal activities/actions, the reports to be provided within 30 days after the end of each semester.
  • EROs should be required to complete training and demonstrate competency, within a reasonable time from their selection, in all areas of de-escalation; trauma informed interventions, adolescent brain development; trauma response, discipline, security measures, BEP and classroom Code of Conduct.
  • Referrals to Restorative Justice should be considered the first alternative for all students. Eligibility for participation in Restorative Justice should not be the discretion of the ERO and should be consistent with Dane County Community Restorative Court practices. As such we expect MMSD to expand and improve Restorative Justice practices throughout the school district
  • Protocol should be established requiring that in instances other than emergencies, every level of behavioral response be exhausted prior to calling an ERO into a classroom, and that in instances where ERO intervention is necessary, those instances be documented and made available to the MMSD Board of Education. That protocol should prohibit staff from threatening students with the use of an ERO.
  • Security Staff’s job descriptions should be reviewed and enhanced to be more supportive of implementing school behavior policies. Required Security Staff training should parallel that of an ERO. Security Staff presence in schools should be utilized in lieu of EROs for most physical altercations. School staff should be better trained as to how to use security staff more effectively. Security Staff and their work should be fully integrated into the Behavior Education Plan (BEP).
  • MMSD and MPD should develop an InterAgency agreement with the appropriate legal offices i.e. DA’s office, courts, and the Dane County Department of Human Services, prioritizing referral of students to avoid or defer prosecution and coordinate services without the filing of criminal charges.
  • MMSD should create an ERO Advisory Committee for the purpose of accountability and oversight.
  • MMSD should amend Policy 4400 to limit administrative searches of student possessions or lockers to situations where there is probable cause of a crime or where there is an imminent threat of danger to the school community.
  • MMSD should arrange for secondary students to be educated annually by MMSD teachers or an independent party regarding their civilian Constitutional rights when interacting with law enforcement.
  • MMSD, with the goal of reducing and/or eliminating the possibility of harm, should gather quantitative and qualitative data from students involved in investigations, arrests or citations, involving EROs, and include this information in the reports to the MMSD BoE and advisory committee.

The committee also makes specific recommendations to alter the language in the current contract, the most important of which include:

  • MMSD and MPD should cooperate and coordinate in all situations when a student is questioned by an ERO (currently this is only required if an ERO uses force on a student).
  • ERO should consult with school officials when conducting on-campus investigations, “on the best course of action balancing the best interests of the student and school community.”
  • MPD should “work with school administration, families, student services, and students to identify conditions which could be harmful to physical and / or emotional welfare of students and to work with the school administration to bring school and community resources to bear on any safety concerns.”
  • “MPD officers in schools shall conduct initial investigations and arrest students for, potential criminal violations occurring off campus only if they have significant potential to impact student and/or school safety, and consult with school officials on the best course of action.”
  • “A request for police assistance does not necessarily need to result in an arrest or citation.”
  • “EROs should not be the primary instructors or counsel for students on understanding laws, ordinances and the juvenile code nor should they be giving legal advice.”
  • “EROs should not enforce school policies or school rules, and should not be utilized or instructed by the school staff to enforce school policies or school rules.”

The committee will present these recommendations to the Board on October 8th and after more meetings in October and November, the Board of Education plans to provide direction to guide the contract negotiations with the City of Madison regarding the next ERO contract, and hopes to finalize the contract by early winter.

In my experience litigating police abuse of students by officers placed in school by contract, police departments are generally loathe to have its officers under any form of control by the school district. While I presume that the committee does not expect City of Madison to adopt every one of its recommendations, the key question is whether or not the City of Madison and its police department will negotiate the next contract in good faith. After all, these EROs, while employees of the City of Madison’s police department, are paid in full by the Madison Metropolitan School District. Moreover, the school district has both safety and education as twin goals, while the police department’s goals are law enforcement. Finding common ground will be critical to determining whether Madison can be a leader in utilizing police officers in its schools in a manner that helps to keep students safe and reduces, rather than increases, racial disparities, and the influx into the school to prison pipeline.

Curiously, to date, neither Madison’s Mayor nor its Chief of Police have commented on these recommendations. That may be a good thing, if they are seriously contemplating entering into negotiations with the school district in good faith. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin State Journal quickly issued an editorial blasting the committee’s recommendations, while remaining silent about racial disparities or the school to prison pipeline. Our media would do better to support good faith negotiations so that the school district and the police department can work together to keep our schools safe and reduce the horrific racial disparities in our schools which contribute to the school to prison pipeline.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.


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