While the government’s response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has dominated St. Louis County Council business over the past several months, some council members have recently turned their attention to another issue. Councilmembers Rochelle Walton Gray [D-District 1] and Kelli Dunaway [D-District 2] submitted a controversial resolution about police officers in local schools at the council’s Nov. 10 meeting.
“The Council does not recommend nor advocate for the presence of Officers in school settings,” the resolution read in part.
The resolutions also called for the Board of Police Commissioners to establish a community training program for officers to “address diversity, sensitivity and cultural competency.”
The resolution was met with resistance from several members of the council but was passed with a strict party-line vote of 4-3. While it may have been intended as a broad referendum on the need for significant change in community policing, it was received by many as a call to kick cops out of schools.
“I don’t know who wrote (the resolution) or where it came from, but clearly whoever wrote it and wherever it came from and those sponsoring it have no idea what our school resources officers do,” council member Tim Fitch [R-District 3] said. He pointed out that the St. Louis County Police Department currently has over 40 officers inside local schools and that every officer has to receive national training prior to appointment.
It’s worth noting that Fitch spent over 30 years in law enforcement and is a former chief of the St. Louis County Police Department. Not surprisingly, the resolution struck a nerve with him.
“Keep in mind this program is completely voluntary,” Fitch said. “The schools come to our police department and ask for those officers to be there.”
A spokesperson for Rockwood School District echoed Fitch’s sentiments on the need for SROs and the partnership between public schools and police.
“Rockwood School District supports the School Resource Officer Program and the partnership it affords us with St. Louis County Police Department, Chesterfield Police Department, Eureka Police Department, Ballwin Police Department, and Ellisville Police Department. For many years now, this program has been in place, and we aim to continue with the program moving forward,” Rockwood District Safety Supervisor Tyrone “Ty” Dennis said per an update on the school’s website.
Dennis emphasized the value of having officers on campus in Rockwood schools.
“For many years, Rockwood School District has had nurses, social workers, counselors, as well as SROs that are a part of the fabric of our schools,” Dennis said. “It has been a focus of Rockwood School District to keep resources and staff available that help make the culture and the climate of our schools safe and provide an awesome learning environment for our students and staff.”
Many municipality leaders in the county were equally dismayed by the resolution.
” … the arrangement the city of Chesterfield has with both Parkway and Rockwood School Districts is that the School Districts pay for 75% of the costs of providing these dedicated and selected officers in each of the high schools and middle schools,” Chesterfield Bob Nation wrote in Nov 18 email directed to Dunaway. “I think this speaks to the fact that the school districts recognize the need and value of the SRO programs. In addition to this, I personally believe in the program within our school districts because I am familiar with the caliber of police officers who are selected for this duty.”
Nation went on to say that the resolution was yet another example of an agenda being pushed by a “radical left element” on the county council.
A quick about-face
The ink of the passed resolution had hardly dried before one of its sponsors had a sudden change of heart. Dunaway quickly adopted a defensive position to recognize the resolution’s shortcomings.
“My current position is that this particular resolution wasn’t as inclusive as it should have been in order to recognize and support good SROs while also recognizing that not all school districts in St. Louis County have an SRO program as strong as the one in the St. Louis County Police Department,” Dunaway said via email the day after the resolution was passed.
She stressed that the resolution didn’t call on local schools or local law enforcement to remove officers from schools. Instead, according to Dunaway, the bill was a “non-binding resolution that the (county) Council doesn’t support officers in schools.”
“I believe it’s important to admit that students from under-resourced and over-policed communities don’t necessarily have positive impressions of and interactions with police, and if officers in schools are not properly trained and supported, they can perpetuate a ‘school to prison pipeline’ at worst and negative reinforcement of the police at best,” Dunaway said.
In response to criticism of the resolutions from Chief Mary Barton, Dunaway commended the high quality of SROs that serve under Barton’s command.
“Well-trained SROs held to high standards of accountability for providing positive interactions with students and families should be supported. Officers in schools without those same standards, training, and accountability may be causing more harm with their presence in schools,” Dunaway said. “The challenge for us as a community is to ensure that all students and families in St. Louis County have access to the same high-quality SROs.”
As a non-binding resolution, the bill serves as a recommendation and does not require action. Given the response from many involved, it doesn’t look like officers will be leaving school hallways anytime soon. And Dunaway wasn’t alone in her quick change of heart. During the Nov. 17 meeting, the council unanimously adopted a new resolution giving thanks for the excellent work done by area SROs.