Rochester school board mulls removing cops from schools

Just weeks after approving the hiring of a sixth police school resource officer in Rochester public schools, members of the school board now apparently want a do-over. The board abruptly reversed course at a recent meeting, instructing administrators to look into removing all SROs from district buildings and to explore other options for keeping the hallways under control.

The Post-Bulletin says the surprise development unfolded when Superintendent Ken Pekel asked for board approval of a standard contract with the Rochester Police Department to cover the next academic year.

“I wish that I did not believe we need police officers in our schools; I have reluctantly concluded that we do,” Pekel said. “We have spent exponentially more time on school resource officers than we have on literacy or any academic subject. I don’t think that’s inappropriate, but it’s important to keep in mind.”

The board didn’t have to take action on the school resource officer contract until May, but Pekel said he brought it up early to make sure they would have ample time to make any changes if the board wanted them.

The action reopens the contentious debate over the use of police officers in the district, an issue that’s been hashed and rehashed for more than a year. The conversation has included a survey of the use of school resource officers in other districts and the rewriting of the contract to include recommended changes. Now it’s evidently back to the drawing board.

While speaking favorably about the individual school resource officers, [board member Jess] Garcia expressed issues with the police department’s overall stance toward the student body.

“The fact that they can’t even articulate and take ownership — not as a person but as a system — that systemic racism exists and that it affects our students is so disappointing to me,” Garcia said. “If everybody’s not going to get on board, and they’re not going to make it clear that we’re here to protect the students…I don’t understand what we’re doing.”

The board instructed Pekel to look into the option of using school or contract employees to replace SROs, as well as the possibility of continuing to use police officers, but only behind the scenes. The latter concept has already been discussed at length and essentially rejected by the Rochester PD.

The second proposal the board instructed Pekel to look into is something they’ve already discussed and revisited to the point of near-absurdity over the course of multiple meetings: the practice of using police resources without actually having school resource officers walking the hallways of the schools.

Time and again, representatives from the police department, as well as the district’s own administration, have presented that as an inferior option. They claim that random street officers responding to the schools as needed are far less equipped to handle situations in the schools than officers who are trained to specifically work in that environment.

For those who need a refresher course in what’s at stake, school board members got a blunt reminder of how many incidents authorities respond to in the district.

During the meeting, Pekel and Peterson presented data from the Rochester Police Department on the number and type of calls logged within the district’s schools. At the high schools so far this year, there have been 49 “assist” calls, 23 disorderly conduct calls, 20 community service calls, 18 calls of suspicious circumstances, 16 medical calls, 11 narcotics calls, and 10 calls for “person in crisis,” among a slew of other call categories as well.

At the middle school, there has been 13 assault calls, 19 assist calls, and 23 disorderly conduct calls, among others.

The district’s contract with Rochester police needs to be re-upped by May, unless the board decides to tear it up and start over from scratch.