Education

Iowa City school board hits pause on police officers in schools

Board president: 'Very clear' board not interested in idea

Members of the public listen Tuesday as Royceann Porter speaks against a proposal to place school resource officers in Iowa City Community School District secondary schools. (Molly Duffy/The Gazette)
Members of the public listen Tuesday as Royceann Porter speaks against a proposal to place school resource officers in Iowa City Community School District secondary schools. (Molly Duffy/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — The Iowa City school board, acknowledging the concerns of some parents who raised questions, Tuesday tabled a vote on whether to add school resource officers — police officers — to the district’s junior high and high schools.

A handful of parents and community members spoke against the measure at the board meeting, and many others had emailed and called board members beforehand.

“They are police officers, and they are trained to be police officers. They are not trained to work with our children,” Johnson County Supervisor Royceann Porter told the board. “We already know what police officers are going to do to black and brown kids.”

The proposal is to be discussed at a later work session, though board President Janet Godwin said it was “very clear” the board was not interested in adding officers to schools.

The school district of some 14,000 students already has work to do in addressing inequitable discipline and implicit bias, board member J.P. Claussen said.

“We’re not there yet to introduce yet another situation that will, quite frankly, put them on that prison pipeline,” board member Ruthina Malone said.

Proponents of school resource officer programs maintain they build rapport between police and young people while giving schools an additional resource as they address safety concerns in school buildings.

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The nearby Cedar Rapids Community School District has partnered with the Cedar Rapids Police Department for nearly a decade on a school resource program in its high schools and some middle schools. Those officers have become integral — even beloved — members of the schools.

But while building relationships is the primary goal of Cedar Rapids’ program, officers maintain the authority to issue citations and arrest students if necessary. Police have issued between 24 and 63 citations at the district’s comprehensive high schools this school year.

“If the opposition to an SRO is that there is such a negative stereotype of police officers and students feel intimidated, we need to confront this problem first,” said West High Principal Gregg Shoultz, a member of the district’s safety committee. “But the answer is not to keep police officers away from students.”

Iowa City police Chief Jody Matherly said in an interview he would welcome a school resource officer program in his jurisdiction because schools offer “the perfect opportunity” to develop positive relationships with young people.

But he acknowledged community concerns about over-policing students of color.

“It requires a high level of training and maturity and experience to do a really good job as an SRO and to have a full understanding of the negative impact an SRO position can have with youth if not done properly,” Matherly said. “We’re well aware of the statistics. … We want to be a part of the solution there, not part of the problem.”

This school year, police have issued nine citations at Iowa City high schools — three at City High, five at Liberty High and one at Tate Alternative High, according to police records.

At the meeting, parents urged the school board to consider research on the impacts of placing police officers in schools, including an American Civil Liberties Union report published last month that found many U.S. schools are investing more in police officers than in mental health professionals.

“When you have police embedded in school environments, they end up being used to do the job that would normally be for the educator, dealing with childhood behaviors,” Tammy Nyden, the parent of a child with mental health needs, told The Gazette before speaking against the recommendation Tuesday. “Those child behaviors get criminalized.”

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The safety committee, which has met 17 times since June, made eight recommendations. Board members expressed support for the other seven.

The recommendations included creating a threat assessment team of school personnel and community members; considering universal mental health screenings for students; and developing a districtwide plan for teaching and responding to social-emotional needs.

The committee also asked for training for students to combat violence, such as the Mentors in Violence program; regular risk assessments at all buildings; junior high and high school curriculum on how to report and respond to identified concerns; and increased training on bullying.

l Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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