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Madison schools committee recommends police officers remain in high schools

September 27, 2018

Nearly 20 months after beginning its work, a Madison schools committee recommended Wednesday that police officers remain in the district’s four main high schools, while also advocating for several changes to the officers’ duties and their interactions with students.

Members of an ad hoc committee unanimously backed a set of 16 recommended changes related to school-based police officers, known as educational resource officers, or EROs, including giving the Madison School District veto authority over the selection and assignment of officers and creating a complaint process independent of the Madison Police Department’s grievance procedure.

This academic year is the last one in a three-year contract between the school district and Police Department to provide uniformed and armed EROs to the four main high schools — East, La Follette, Memorial and West.

“It’s been an extremely difficult topic. We knew that going into it. It’s been a more difficult process than we anticipated, but I want to thank you all for participating and your contributions,” said School Board and committee member TJ Mertz. “I think we did good work.”

A special Madison School Board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 8 so board members can begin discussing and digesting the recommendations, Mertz said. The district’s goal is to have a new contract with the Police Department finalized in the winter, he said.

Other recommendations from the committee include removing a three- to five-year limit that officers can serve as EROs, having teachers or an outside group educate secondary students annually on their Constitutional rights when it comes to interacting with law enforcement, and having restorative justice options considered as the first alternative for all students.

“In making these recommendations, we are attempting to balance the needs and safety of all students and staff without prioritizing one group’s safety and well-being over another,” the committee’s report to the School Board said.

Additionally, the committee is suggesting specific ERO contract language changes, such as having the officers not enforce school policies or rules and limiting EROs from investigating potentially criminal incidents off campus to only those that could “have significant potential to impact student and/or school safety.”

“I just have heard the repeated requests for some degree of community control of the police, and so that is something I felt was representative of a very real stressor in many of our students’ lives,” said committee member Abra Vigna. “I think that accountability measures are our checks and balances.”

School Board and committee member Dean Loumos floated possible contract changes on whether EROs could be pulled from high schools in the case of emergencies and if they should be allowed to park their squad cars on school property.

But the committee decided to leave the consideration of those ideas up to the discretion of the School Board.

After some community members raised concerns about the presence of EROs negatively affecting students of color and other minority populations during the last contract negotiations in 2016, the School Board decided to create the committee. It began meeting in February 2017 but missed the original May deadline for finalizing its recommendations.

While tempers flared at a previous committee meeting in July, Wednesday’s gathering — the last for the committee — was more of a procedural sizzle as members largely tweaked the language to their recommendations.

The most contentious part of the meeting involved a debate on how to proceed with reviewing the recommendations, whether all should be read and discussed or only those that members specifically requested to go over.

Dozens have showed up for previous meetings, but on Wednesday, where no public comment was allowed, only a handful of people sat in the chairs of McDaniels Auditorium in the district’s Doyle Administration Building.

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