The board approved the decision with a 5-2 vote after considerable discussion. Board members Cathy Nathan, Melissa Amundsen, Julie Workman, Jean Marvin and Karen MacLaughlin moved in favor of the contract. Board members Don Barlow and Jess Garcia voted against it.
Those opposed to the contract referenced the negative effect law enforcement can have on minority groups. Those in favor spoke about the safety law enforcement can provide to the schools and the people who occupy them.
“It’s not about our minoritized families or staff or students (needing) to have a different opinion of SROs,” Garcia said. “It’s police needing to have a different opinion: seeing us, hearing us, respecting us. And that is where the problem lies.”
In addition to debating the issue Tuesday, the board met at length with leaders from the Rochester Police Department the week before to discuss the use of resource officers. At that time, the school board also reviewed the results of a survey that it had sent out to gauge the public’s opinion of school resource officers.
One of the recurring arguments in favor of having SROs is that they are more familiar with the environment and culture of school settings. Superintendent Michael Muñoz said there may be times when someone attempts to bring weapons or banned substances into the buildings. In those sort of situations, Muñoz said, it would be more productive to have an SRO respond rather than a normal patrol officer who may not completely understand the dynamics of the environment.
Board Chairwoman Jean Marvin drew a line of separation between Rochester’s officers and the negative perception law enforcement has received in the national spotlight.
“I am keenly aware of the national narrative of police and policing in this country.” Marvin said. “And then I listen to students and parents and principals and health care professionals in Rochester. And they’re saying ‘it’s not like that here; that’s not what’s happening in our schools.’ And we hear over and over again principals talk about their SROs who are deescalating those same kids who might very well get in big trouble if somebody else comes in and deals with their behavior.”
According to the contract the board approved, the school district will pay the city $28,189 a month for the use of five officers, which amounts to $338,268 over the course of the year.
The board approved the contract with the caveat that there will be a board-approved memorandum of understanding added to the agreement before the start of the next school year. The board resorted to approving the base contract on Tuesday with the intention of following it up with the memorandum of understanding due to a timing issue. If they didn’t act on the new contract, the existing agreement between the school board and the city would have automatically renewed.
In spite of the opportunity to initiate changes through the memorandum of understanding, Garcia said she was uncomfortable with the rushed way this year’s contract came into being. She also expressed doubts that the necessary changes would happen through the memorandum.
“I am incredibly opposed to taking away an option that may actually be providing some protection to our students and staff without an appropriate replacement,” Garcia said before expressing further concerns. “I don’t think I can say ‘yes, I would like to renew this contract’ and hope that the things I would like to see are going to come through in this MOU.”
What that memorandum of understanding will include is yet to be seen. One possibility is that the SROs would wear a different kind of uniform than those worn by other officers on duty throughout the city.
“This is going to require that the Rochester Police Department change their practices in their policing in our schools — that it’s not the other way around,” MacLaughlin said. “And that’s the commitment that I heard from the RPD leadership last week: that they’re committed to doing that and that they’re prepared to do that; to change how they’re interacting with our school community.”