Post updated at 3:24 p.m. Monday, Aug. 22:
Lt. Myrone Grady is hopeful that the Lawrence Police Department will be able to place a school resource officer at each of the district’s four middle schools in addition to its two high schools this year.
If resources become available and there is interest, expanding to six total SROs “is the plan but we are a few months away from that becoming a reality,” he said via email Wednesday.
Although Lawrence school board members spoke highly about the individual officers serving as SROs, some have voiced concerns about the potential for students whose mental health may be struggling to interact with the criminal justice system — particularly at the middle school level.
Superintendent Anthony Lewis shared a brief history of school resource officers during the Aug. 8 school board meeting: In 2001, each district middle and high school got grant-funded SRO positions. The grant funding ended in 2005, but the city kept funding the six SRO positions until 2012. Then budget cuts and organizational changes led to eliminating two SROs, leaving two assigned to each high school. They respond to the middle and elementary schools as needed.
In July 2019, the city asked the district to help fund the SROs. But some school board members at the time raised questions about how students feel about having officers in their schools and how the SRO program impacts marginalized students. The district evaluated the program and reported back to the board in January 2020 and May 2021.
As it stands, when all students return to school Thursday, LPD spokesperson Laura McCabe said that Officer Kacey Wiltz will be at Free State High School; Officer Amaury Collado will be at Lawrence High School; and Officers Bailey Salsbury and James Browning will be at Southwest and Billy Mills middle schools, respectively.
Grady said he was looking at October at the earliest to provide SROs at Liberty Memorial Central and West middle schools. However, the current SROs will still team up to cover the remaining schools until a change is made, he said.
“Nothing has changed in terms of their responsibilities, they’ll just ‘office’ out of their respective schools as opposed to being doubled up at the high schools,” he said.
The cost of two additional SROs would be paid by the city, Lewis said.
Lewis estimated that each SRO position costs about $60,000 in annual funding; however, an older page on the city’s website says that “$600,000 fully funds six police officers and all equipment including computers, cars, etc. stationed on secondary public school campuses.”
Grady, who supervises the program, was selected as the 2011 School Resource Officer of the year by the Kansas Juvenile Officers Association, and Officer Shelby Brouhard earned the honor in 2022.
School board concerns
Board member Kelly Jones, who was serving on the board during the conversations in 2019, said during the recent board meeting that she didn’t have concerns about the individual SROs serving in Lawrence schools. She’s met them and believes they’re passionate about serving kids and keeping schools safe, she said.
“It’s about this criminal justice system that they’re interacting with instead of a K-12 educator, which just happens,” Jones said. “I mean, I’ve seen it happen, and I’ve seen it have a profoundly negative impact on the outcomes for kids.”
She said she was concerned about ensuring that the district has the right balance of mental health support in place as they discuss adding more police. Adding more officers would increase the risk that a student who’s acting out would face interaction with the criminal justice system, Jones said, and she was particularly concerned about those outcomes for 11-, 12- and 13-year-old kids.
The city cut its funding of the WRAP (Working to Recognize Alternative Possibilities) program that places Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center therapists in schools for the 2022-23 school year. That left the district and Bert Nash searching to secure between $350,000 and $400,000. They did, through a change in behavioral health funding at the state level.
Lewis said the district continues to provide counselors and social workers in school buildings, and SROs are not involved in discipline of students.
Board member Carole Cadue-Blackwood shared during the meeting that she was recently pulled over while driving home because her license plate light was out. She pointed to a report that was the subject of several meetings last week: Researchers found that Black drivers are 2.73 times more likely to get stopped by law enforcement than white drivers in Douglas County, and drivers of color are 1.72 times more likely to be searched.
“I was nervous and shook. I just wanted to go home,” she said. “I totally agree with what Kelly’s saying. I would want more mental health supports if we’re gonna add in more police.”
Board Vice President Paula Smith asked if the SROs wear their full vests and belts when they visit elementary schools. She was concerned about what young students who might have been traumatized by previous encounters with police might see.
Wiltz, present for the board meeting, said depending on the circumstances of the call, sometimes she just wears her polo shirt; but if there was an upset parent in the office, for instance, she would wear her full vest. She said usually when they’re at elementary schools, it’s because the principal has asked them to be there for an award ceremony or to play on the playground.
Board Past President Erica Hill said she thinks the district is fortunate to have an SRO program in which the officers participate in specialized training, such as the district’s Beyond Diversity training, and work with administrators to ensure that students have a safe learning environment.
“I do know we have great SROs in our schools already that really go above and beyond for our students,” she said. She noted that she doesn’t know all of the current SROs personally, but “from what I’ve heard, observed, (the program is) an asset to ensuring that our schools are safe for our students to learn.”
Jones said she wants the board to continue monitoring the SRO program “and really acknowledge the reality of some of the conflicting possibilities and outcomes for students in this particular circumstance.” Board members agreed to revisit the subject at a future meeting.
“Please know, as a Black man, I am keenly aware of the concerns that the board and the community is sharing, and I don’t think you’ll find anyone that’s watching closer than I am. And so just please know that,” Lewis said.
“And as a mother to a Black son, I am, too,” Hill said. “… I don’t want us to undervalue the importance of having the right people. We can have all the policies; we can have the perfect MOU. But if we don’t have the right people in those positions, none of that matters.”
School safety meetings
Amid concerns about school violence because of recent incidents in Olathe and Uvalde, Texas, Lawrence school officials highlighted school and community safety, increased SRO presence and communication needs to a small group of community members at a public forum Thursday night at Lawrence High School.
“We know that safety is on your mind with all that has happened throughout our nation throughout the years, but also what happened this spring in Uvalde,” Cynthia Johnson, the district’s executive director of inclusion, engagement and belonging, told the crowd.
She told the session — the second of six scheduled meetings on the topic — that safety is a shared responsibility that “belongs to all of us, teachers, community members, students, SROs and district personnel.”
Citing 2019 news headlines about past incidents at Lawrence High, Lewis stressed the importance of building and improving relationships between students and faculty. Those relationships, he said, are more helpful for school safety than taking “drastic” measures such as installing metal detectors or involving students with the criminal justice program at a young age.
“We have a very special relationship here,” Wiltz said of the schools’ partnership with the police department. “To have support and trust from the district for us is special to us and this community.”
Collado echoed Wiltz, saying that it’s all about trust.
“We will prove every day that not only we should be here, not only that we are proud to be here, but every day we are here we are doing everything we can to prevent issues with safety and prevent your fellow classmates from being introduced to the criminal justice system,” Collado said.
As part of the forum, Lawrence High School Assistant Principal Mark Pruet and Communications Director Julie Boyle had a brief discussion about how the district would communicate with parents in the event of any incident. They stressed the importance of having updated family contact info with the school.
“We know rumors fly wild,” Pruet said. “It’s important to have [updated contact info], so you all know exactly what’s going on.”
Boyle added that for parents, anytime “you hear something, or your child does, just go ahead and report it to any adult in the building … the nearest adult.”
“We want to hear from you, especially if you have a concern about safety,” Boyle said. “If we don’t know about it, we can’t prevent it before it happens.”
She also warned parents, “we will have at least one Snapchat threat [this year], I guarantee it. We’ve had many before, we’ll have them again. We have young people here who say things and don’t think in the heat of the moment.”
Jose Cornejo, who is transitioning from his position as mental health facilitator into a social worker role at East Heights, joined incoming Mental Health Coordinator Kiley Luckett in a conversation about mental health and social-emotional learning.
Cornejo revisited the idea of building relationships, which he said the mental health team at each respective school would be working on.
“Parents can say [to the team], ‘Hey, I’m concerned about Jose, I’m worried about Jose,’” he said. “From there, we can help the student more and know how to better help them.”
There are three more safety conversations scheduled. Meetings are set for 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the following dates and locations:
- Thursday, Aug. 18 – Southwest Middle School
- Tuesday, Aug. 23 – Free State High School
- Thursday, Aug. 25 – Liberty Memorial Central Middle School
Note: This post was updated to clarify the context of Hill’s quotes during the board meeting.
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Jack Ritter (he/him), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a student at the University of Kansas studying journalism. He is also a graduate of Lawrence High School, where he was the editor-in-chief of The Budget Online.