Parents’ petition forces St. Peter schools to rethink cutting popular police officer

St. Peter school administrators just got a crash course in the power of social media. Not only from students but also parents and other residents of the southern Minnesota community who were unhappy to learn a popular school resource officer was going to be replaced by a social worker.

The Free Press reports the controversy broke out after the officer, Tom Winsell, posted his farewell online.

In a social media post last week, Tom ‘OT’ Winsell announced he would not be returning to the schools next school year.

“I truly have loved being your SRO,” he wrote. “This reduction in the program is not the choice of the police department.”

He suggested supporters contact the district and “inform them of the positive factors that the SRO program has given to the community.”

Upset parents quickly cobbled together an online petition in support of the police officer.

Officer Winsell, known to many as OT has been working for St Peter school district for many years. He has spent countless hours building long lasting relationships with the students in this community. He has selflessly given himself to ensuring that we, as parents, can feel secure in knowing that our children are safe when we send them to school. OT has gone beyond keeping our children safe, he has been a shoulder to cry on, an encourager, motivator, father figurer, role model and friend. His training, experience and relationships he has with the students, parents and teachers gives him the ability to not only keep our schools safe but to make a difference and change lives.

The petition sparked an immediate response, drawing almost 2,000 signatories within days in a city of 12,000 residents. School staff started to feel the heat, leading administrators to back off and reconsider their options.

The pandemic brought students’ mental health and social service needs to the forefront, [St. Peter Schools Superintendent Bill] Gronseth said, and district leaders decided the district should focus resources on enhancing those supports.

The district now will use federal coronavirus relief dollars to temporarily fund the additional social worker, who will support early childhood and elementary students and their families. The extra federal dollars are only temporary, Gronseth noted.

The district long has partnered with the city of St. Peter to fund one school resource officer. A second officer was added in the fall of 2019.

Meantime, a group demanding Winsell’s removal has posted a counter petition with racially-charged allegations, attracting far less support to date.

Another petition on the same website calling Winsell’s removal “long overdue” has received 86 signatures. That petition also accuses Winsell of making racist and sexist remarks and politicizing his position, but it lists no reasons for those claims.

The district also has now received a separate formal complaint about the officer and will be conducting an investigation as legally required, Gronseth said. Details are not public pending the investigation’s resolution.

The school resource officer’s supporters know their success in holding off Winsell’s departure could be fleeting. So their leader, Wendy Fischer, has urged supporters to turn up the heat.

This is a positive step in the right direction but it is a temporary step. The school wants our input and feedback. This petition is one of several ways we can do that. Other ways to get involved and give your input could be a phone call, an email, write a letter, continue to share this petition or go to the public school board meeting on the 17th of this month.

For now, Winsell’s future remains on hold, while school administrators weigh what to do next.