FAYETTEVILLE — The city will soon have a new school resource officer, and could add more as soon as next year.
The City Council on Tuesday voted 8-0 to approve a proposal to add one new officer, and committed to adding two new officers annually until each school has a full-time officer on duty every school day.
The measure was sponsored by Councilmember Holly Hertzberg who said she wants to keep schools safe, but also because the local school district should follow recent state recommendations that suggest all schools should have at least one resource officer.
The city currently has six school resource officers assigned to the Fayetteville Public Schools district, which operates 15 campuses and next year will open a new middle school in west Fayetteville.
Hertzberg’s plan will add one new officer this year. Adding two new officers annually would begin in 2023.
The city shares the cost of paying for school resource officers with the district. Adding a new officer this year will cost $40,000. The district will reimburse the city for $23,400 of the officer’s salary, and the city will pay the remaining $16,600.
The council last considered adding new SROs in 2020 when it twice rejected a federal grant that would’ve helped hire two new officers.
During the Aug. 4, 2020 meeting, the council was split 4-4 on the vote and Mayor Lioneld Jordan broke the tie to accept the grant, but Councilmember Sarah Marsh rescinded her vote, causing the resolution to fail 3-5. Others joining Marsh included Sonia Harvey, Matthew Petty, Sloan Scroggin and Kyle Smith. Those in favor were Mark Kinion, Sarah Bunch and Teresa Turk.
Turk brought the discussion back to the council on Aug. 18, 2020 in what would be a heated, nine-hour debate.
Some who spoke against were people of color who told stories of traumatic experiences they’d had with SROs, and described interactions they’d had with officers who they said targeted them, entrapped them, and made them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in schools where the student population was mostly white.
Several school resource officers spoke in favor of the proposal, and described the relationships they’ve built with troubled students and children who’ve come to them with problems that they said they didn’t feel like they could take to anyone else.
At the time, Councilemmber Harvey said she was most affected by listening to those who spoke about their personal negative experiences. She said the city should pause its SRO program to allow more time to consider the idea. Turk said the second discussion was worthwhile, but eventually voted with the majority in a 7-1 decision to table the proposal indefinitely. Kinion was the only council member to vote against the tabling.
Police Chief Mike Reynolds gave a report with citation and arrest data from the past few years.
Last school year there were three arrests by SROs and 18 citations issued, according to the data. Of those, 62% were initiated by school officials, with 33% being initiated by an officer who witnessed a fight or another criminal act inside the school. Reynolds said 5% of the incidents were initiated after a complaint from a parent, student or other witness.
The data shows the 21 incidents during last school year was a decrease in recent years. There were 50 incidents in 2019-20, and 68 in 2018-19. Data from 2020-21 was omitted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report also shows the race of those cited or arrested last year. Among the incidents, nine students were Black, eight were white, two were Hispanic and two were listed as “other.”
Reynolds then showed body cam footage of Fayetteville officers responding to a shooting incident near Dickson Street in which they quickly located and apprehended a suspect without incident. He also showed footage of officers responding to the murder of officer Stephen Carr.
“As you can see, they run to the gunfire,” Reynolds said. “They don’t hide. They’re brave and their actions save lives, and they are ready to protect students and faculty in the city’s school system.”
Cheryl May, director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Arkansas, said training SROs is extremely important. She said the state has made great strides in recent years to ensure officers in Arkansas are properly prepared to work with students.
“The emphasis is not to get kids in trouble, the emphasis is to help them,” May said.
Megan Duncan, deputy superintendent for Fayetteville Public Schools, agreed and said the district has recently invested heavily in counselors, student support specialists and socials workers to work alongside SROs.
School District Superintendent Dr. John L. Colbert said SROs are just one piece of the district’s overall approach to keeping students safe, but they are an important part of the plan. He said Fayetteville’s police department is unlike some cities where officers are often criticized for their behavior, especially toward minorities. Officers in Fayetteville, he said, have a reputation for being collaborative and supportive of all residents.
“I know what we stand for here,” Colbert said. “We are different and we are special.”
Councilmember Sloan Scroggin suggested amending the resolution to include a $3,000 optional allowance for officers to use if they want to pursue social work certificates or other counseling-related classes that could be useful on the job. Scroggin’s amendment was approved 8-0.
During public comment, 16 people spoke in favor of the proposal and nine spoke against.
Those against questioned the effectiveness of officers in schools, and said other options should be considered like reducing class sizes or adding more staff such as counselors or teacher aides.
Representatives from the local nonprofit Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition said adding armed police officers to schools isn’t the answer. Some shared data from a study by the Annenberg Institute at Brown University which estimated the impacts of SRO placement from 2014 to 2018. The study found that while SROs do effectively reduce some forms of violence in schools, they do not prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents.
Others against cited studies that show the presence of SROs sometimes leads to increased school punishments, citations or arrests that have disproportionate affects on Black students or those with disabilities.
Several of those in favor were teachers or staff at the school district who said they see first-hand how SROs interact with students in Fayetteville and asked the council to please help add more officers to the ranks.
Councilmember D’Andre Jones said he’s listened to both sides, but ultimately he favors the proposal. He said politics seem to play a role in people’s opinions about SROs, but the council should put safety over politics, especially in a city where the police department has a good reputation.
“The responsibility is to provide safety and security for our students, teachers and administrators,” said Jones.
Kinion said it’s evident that the community is engaged in the issue and would like to see more SROs. He said it’s unfortunate that the council didn’t approve the grant two years ago that would’ve funded two new SROs.
“But I think today we can make up for that to a degree,” said Kinion.
Harvey said her concerns from two years ago have since been alleviated. She said the direction in which the district wants to move has become more clear now that more time has passed and more people have weighed in.
Bunch said things have clearly shifted since two years ago when so many people spoke divisively against adding SROs in Fayetteville. She said more people are realizing that there’s a lot more to an SRO than just their presence as a police officer, and that people seem to be more understanding when it comes to discussing SROs.
“It’s something that’s been really enlightening to me,” said Bunch.
Councilmember Mike Wiederkehr said the shift over the past two years likely comes from seeds that were planted during the first discussion. He said he also agrees with Bunch that Fayetteville’s ability to have a positive debate about difficult topics is refreshing.
“This level of discourse does not happen everywhere,” Wiederkehr said.
Mayor Jordan weighs in
Mayor Jordan said he was in favor of the proposal to add more SROs two years ago and he’s in favor today. He said the atmosphere in the council chambers has improved since the last debate.
“I feel much better about the conversations I heard tonight than those that I heard a couple of years ago,” said Jordan.
Jordan said his support for the proposal stems first from his confidence in the police department.
“I think we have the most outstanding, progressive and best-trained police force and best police chief that anybody could have in this state,” Jordan said.
Trust in the school district is another key factor in his support, Jordan said.
“We’ve got the best school system that anybody could have in the state,” he said.
But more important, Jordan said, is the city’s responsibility to do everything possible to ensure the safety of its students.
“We’re going to keep the children safe,” Jordan said.