Kalamazoo students question effectiveness of school officers

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — As protests and calls for restorative justice ring across the nation, schools are also weighing their options.

On Wednesday evening, students, faculty, police and city leaders discussed the possibility of removing school resource officers from Kalamazoo Public School buildings. Students, current and former, led the discussion, posing questions to administrators and city leaders regarding SROs’ necessity.  

“I have heard from students and parents that they are not going to come back to school in the fall if SROs are removed because they feel safe when they’re there. I’ve heard students who do want them removed,” KPS Superintendent Rita Raichoudhuri said during the virtual meeting. 

The district currently has one officer assigned to its three high schools. The police department’s contract with KPS is signed on an annual basis.

Though those contracts are with the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety, the Township of Kalamazoo Police Department’s chief answered questions on Wednesday’s panel. 

“Officers’ major responsibility is the protection of faculty, students, staff. We need to look no further than places like Columbine, Stoneman Douglas to know that there are other real threats,” township police Chief Bryan Ergang said when asked about the reason SROs are needed. “We can look at other events to know that (active shooters) are from within the school.”
 
Some students questioned if having officers patrolling the hallways could directly contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. Some former students wrote in about incidents that have happened at school and later shown up on their records as adults and prevented employment.

The Kalamazoo County Prosecutor’s Office said that their juvenile justice system is not punitive and is designed to help children. 

“We, as an office, are also very familiar with the school-to-prison pipeline,” Kalamazoo County Assistant Prosecutor Scott Brower said. “Diversion and prevention are top goals. We are also very supportive of initiatives through the Legislature to remove, for those individuals where the adjudication does become a part of the record, to remove those.”

The panel also discussed the differences between training for SROs and regular patrol officers. Ergang and Kalamazoo Township leaders says all officers go through trauma/crisis awareness training and racial bias training. 

While police said that anecdotally, most interactions between students and officers are positive, some students said that was not their experience. Some asked if there were better ways to keep students safe without inflicting more trauma. 

Moderators also inquired about the district’s budget and how money could be allocated to better serve students.

“We need to have more of a focus on student mental health and save spaces for students to go where they’re not removed from the school building. Those are things that I personally believe in and that I’m working to ensure that there are comprehensive measures,” Raichoudhuri said.

Raichoudhuri said there are plans to survey students and staff to measure the effectiveness of SROs. There were numerous mentions during the meeting about a need for more data. The panel agreed this is just the beginning of this discussion.