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After Years Of Increased Police Presence, How Has The Pandemic Affected School Discipline?

Since the 2014-15 school year, Rockford Public Schools referred students to law enforcement for school discipline matters 2,379 times. The number of police incidents climbed from around 300 per year up to 503 in 2018-19, according to data obtained by WNIJ via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Last summer, protests fueled a debate over police in schools. In many cities, the conversation about school resource officers, or SROs, is not over. Katherine Dunn, with the racial justice organization Advancement Project, says the number of reported police incidents doesn’t show the whole picture.

“What we know is likely extremely under-representative of students' interactions with school police,” she said.

Schools are required to log incidents, but since officers are often on-site or requested through school radios, not every interaction can be filed.

Rockford Public Schools’ student population is 31% Black, but nearly half of police incidents involved Black students.

Police incidents in Rockford schools dropped significantly during COVID-19 as fewer students were in the buildings and interactions were limited. Dunn says that holds true with national data.

“There were some districts that employed SRO’s in interesting ways during the pandemic, including doing house checks during virtual learning, but I think overall student's interactions with police definitely declined,” Dunn says.

Rockford Public Schools employs 10 SROs, led by Sergeant Timothy Speltz. He says the pandemic had a major impact on what resource officers could do.

“We reduced the staffing from nine officers to six,” he said. “Each officer had to cover multiple schools, just because of the reduced amount of students in each school.”

Speltz says they’re in schools to build relationships with students, so they feel comfortable coming to officers if there’s a serious issue. That didn’t really happen during COVID because they had limited access to students.

“We take the approach that’s called the triad. We act as a mentor, a counselor/classroom presenter, and then the law enforcement arm,” said Speltz. “So, the majority of our day-to-day interactions are as counseling.”

Many calling for SROs to be removed say they aren’t qualified to be counselors. Officers complete a week-long certification before starting, and Speltz says most training on being a mentor to kids happens on the job.

Opponents say schools should hire more mental health support staff instead. 1.7 million students go to a school with police but no counselors. They also say officers don’t make buildings safer either.

Research is inconclusive as to whether they can help prevent mass shootings. But SRO organizations point to specific examples like Dixon High School, where an officer was able to apprehend a student who opened fire in the building.

One study also showed a link between more police and lower graduation rates.

Unlike many districts, Speltz says his division has shrunk since he started.

“When I came into the unit, we had 12 SROs. I was a supervisor for 12. Maybe two years later, they reduced it to nine,” he said.

Back in 1975, 1% of schools in the United States had officers. In 2018, around 58% had a police presence.

The number of SROs has continued to increase over the past several years. That’s come with a rise in law enforcement referrals and student arrests, according to the most recent federal Civil Rights Data Collection.

But there has been a slight decrease in exclusionary discipline like expulsion and suspensions.

“Referrals actually increased as much as 12%,” said Dunn. “So, a pretty significant jump, which indicates I think that as we are less inclined to use things like suspension and expulsion, we are doing things like referring students to law enforcement in place of that.”

Out-of-school suspensions numbers have fallen in Illinois, but schools like East High School in Rockford still rank in the top 3 statewide. In-school suspensions have risen with Auburn High School having the 2nd most in the state last year.

Katherine Dunn says this year the Biden administration doubled funding for the COPS police hiring program, including grants for school resource officer positions.

“While the federal government doesn't make up the largest share of funding for school police, they are often kind of the seed that plants police in school districts, and then state and local governments are left to kind of pick up the bill,” she said.

The Counseling Not Criminalization Act was recently introduced into Congress, which would end the federal government’s financial support of school police.

Whether or not it passes, the conversation about the role of school police and how they interact with students won’t be going away anytime soon.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.