LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For months, a group of local activists has implored the Jefferson County Board of Education to end the school district’s relationships with various law enforcement agencies that provide school resource officers.

Members of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools – a coalition that includes the Jefferson County Teachers Association, Dear JCPS, Louisville Showing Up For Racial Justice and the Louisville Fellowship of Reconciliation, among others – have made their cases during public comment periods at school board meetings.

They point to a November incident in which a Jeffersontown police officer used a Taser to subdue a Jeffersontown High School student after the teen allegedly attacked the school’s resource officer as he tried to break up a fight over headphones.

Police had responded to a call for backup by the resource officer and eventually arrested the student, Roghae Tinker, and his brother, Rajae Tinker. The two were also suspended by JCPS for 10 and four days, respectively.

AROS members say that incident highlights why police shouldn’t be relied on for school security at Jefferson County Public Schools, and they’re not alone. At least one school board member says he would like to see JCPS move away from contracting with law enforcement for resource officers while one of his colleagues says the district actually needs more resource officers to protect students from violence.

As schools across Kentucky and the U.S. grapple with how to improve safety in the aftermath of a pair of deadly school shootings in Benton, Ky., and Parkland, Fla., that left 19 students dead, those opposed to resource officers in JCPS schools say their views haven’t wavered even as some believe more police in schools would deter would-be shooters.

“We still have students who kind of reach out to us and are extremely scared but want to share that they are fearful at their school, and it’s not because somebody’s randomly going to come in and shoot them,” said Chanelle Helm, co-organizer of Black Lives Matter’s Louisville chapter and a member of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. “It’s because the authority that is in the school system right now doesn’t seem to really care.”

“It’s 2018,” she continued. “I think now is the time that it has to stop. They come from enough trauma. There’s police officers in their neighborhoods. There’s police officers on their way to school. There’s police officers that can jump on your bus.”

But others say removing resource officers from local schools would be a mistake.

Louisville Metro Police Department Sgt. Curtis Lipsey, who served as Meyzeek Middle School’s resource officer for seven years and now supervises LMPD’s school resource officers alongside Sgt. Michael Amos, said working in a school setting gave him an opportunity to foster relationships with students in and out of school.

He said he understands why some students aren’t comfortable around police based on what they’ve seen happen in their neighborhoods or on television, which makes it more important in his eyes to reach those students and give them a more positive impression of law enforcement.

As a black man, Lipsey said he felt it was especially important to be a positive male role model for students of color. Beyond providing security, he says that aspect of resource officer work is a pivotal piece of the school safety puzzle.

Lipsey said coaching Meyzeek’s flag football team and served as an assistant coach for the boys’ and girls’ basketball teams during his time as a resource officer there also helped develop relationships with students. He encourages the school resource officers under his purview to find their own ways to get involved in the schools they serve.

“I am a police officer by profession,” he said. “That’s my job and that’s how I make my living, but I was their coach. They’d see me at 2:15 in uniform. At 2:30 I’m in shorts or sweats and a T-shirt and I can laugh and I can joke and I do things that coaches do, that parents do, that adults do.”

“We’re police officers, but we also have compassion,” Lipsey added.

Meyzeek is one of 27 JCPS schools that have resource officers provided by four local law enforcement entities – LMPD, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, Jeffersontown Police Department and St. Matthews Police Department – with agreements totaling up to $674,000 for the 2017-18 school year, according to the school district.

Most of that amount is contracted for LMPD, which gets $324,000 for 17 school resource officers in the current school year, and JCSO, which receives up to $320,000 for eight resource officers.

That leaves 145 JCPS schools without a resource officer on campus. Allison Martin, the district’s communications director, said JCPS works with law enforcement agencies based on requests submitted by schools.

JCPS reviewing SRO policies

The Nov. 1 incident at Jeffersontown High School prompted JCPS to launch reviews of the school’s culture as well as the district’s use of school resource officers.

Middleton Reutlinger, a Louisville-based law firm tasked with the reviews, reported back to acting JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio that the district should provide training for officers and school staff on their roles in handling situations that arise in schools, such as teachers and administrators not relying on resource officers to mete out discipline for minor infractions.

Likewise, the Dec. 21 report recommends that the district give guidance on how police should execute law enforcement actions like arrests on school grounds and provide examples of situations where de-escalation techniques would be preferred over arrests, among other suggestions.

JCPS is still weighing how it will alter policies regarding school resource officers in light of Middleton Reutlinger’s reports, acting Superintendent Marty Pollio said.

“We’re working on some additional training,” he said. “We’re finishing up some (memoranda of understanding) with our partners to increase the training that we have with them in the short term. In the long term, we are continuing to study all options, and really right now what we’re looking at some other districts like us around the country and what they do.”

Phasing out SROs

Helm believes that phasing out the district’s use of school resource officers over a three-year period is the most prudent move for JCPS.

The nearly $650,000that JCPS spends on contracts with law enforcement agencies this year can then be directed for other items like boosting teacher salaries and hiring trauma and mental health counselors, she said.

Listening to students and taking a proactive approach to handling issues that they face on a daily basis, such as bullying, could prevent troubled youths from bringing a weapon to school and harming their classmates, she said.

Helm believes resource officers will be removed from schools not just in JCPS, but in districts throughout the U.S.

“If we want to take back our schools, if we want to take back our communities and if we want a better future, we would stop leaning so heavily on the police for all different types of things,” she said.

It’s a concept supported by Chris Kolb, a Jefferson County Board of Education member who represents District 2.

“There are just a lot more common sense things that we can get better at that ensure school safety like better controlling entrances and exits, who’s in the building, why are they there, when are they gone,” Kolb said. “Things like that make a bigger difference.”

Kolb says JCPS may be able to eliminate school resource officers sooner than the three-year window proposed by Helm while also keeping some security personnel on staff to handle more severe altercations that occur.

However, he said any cost savings realized through cutting resource officers would likely be directed toward alternative forms of security in schools.

“The reality is I don’t think we’re going to see a big cost savings even if we phased out SROs because we do need some security,” Kolb said.

But fellow school board member Linda Duncan, who represents District 5, disagrees and says JCPS schools need resource officers now more than ever in light of recent violence.

A former teacher and assistant principal in JCPS, Duncan said there were many instances where she didn’t feel equipped to handle instances in which students might have broken the law like rapes of assaults that result in significant injuries.

“We live in a new era, and the new normal is kids have access to guns, and that’s a very frightening thought that that’s the new normal, that kids are getting access to guns and our parents aren’t always vigilant about protecting them from those guns,” she said. “… I see nothing coming that would lead me to support phasing out SROs.”

She and Jon Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, say resource officers are a better alternative to allowing teachers to carry concealed firearms, another proposal that schools across the country are contemplating since the recent shootings.

Akers noted that resource officers receive training on how to interact with students and conduct law enforcement activities in school settings and that advanced training is available through his organization and the Department of Criminal Justice Training.

“Police officers are not in the schools just to arrest kids or pull up paddy wagons and see how many kids we can dump off in juvenile court,” said Akers, a former high school principal in Lexington. “They serve as teachers, counselors, role models in many cases, and then if a law gets broken then they have to do what they have to do and make the arrest.”

Hiring a JCPS security force

One alternative that could be considered as a matter of compromise is hiring an entirely separate security force within JCPS, something other large school districts, such as Atlanta Public Schools, have done.

The school board already has its own security officers on staff and could expand that directive to put more of the district’s own law enforcement personnel in schools, Duncan said.

“But again, to me the most unnerving feature about all of this is the fact that our kids are getting ahold of guns and bringing them to schools,” she said. “We find some of them because kids tell us, but I fear for the ones that we don’t find.”

Kolb said Pollio and other district leaders are examining how five other school districts handle their security protocols and will present their findings to the board at a future meeting.

Hiring in-school security would make officers accountable to JCPS rather than the law enforcement entities that resource officers represent and give the district a greater role in training officers and enforcing policies, he said.

“If they worked for JCPS, we’d have the ability to set really clear expectations that are focused on security, yes, but also focused on developmentally appropriate forms of security for middle schoolers or high schoolers,” Kolb said.

While he’s heard talk of the district considering hiring its own security force, Kolb stressed that he’s seen no formal recommendations from JCPS administrators to that effect.

Lipsey, the LMPD sergeant, said police should have a presence in schools to help de-escalate situations and develop trust with youth, saying he’s personally seen student apprehension wane the longer he was around them as a resource officer and as a coach.

He said he didn’t personally have an issue with JCPS hiring its own security force if that’s the route the district takes “as long as we’re developing the correct relationships.”

“Police officers aren't going anywhere,” he said. “Youth aren't going anywhere. We have to build this relationship to make things positive.”

Helm says her group has brought its concerns regarding resource officers to most school board members in hopes of prompting them to take action.

That information, she said, “rang some bells.”

“There’s some things that they clearly are not attuned to that are happening at the schools, and we have the data for that and we have the information for that,” Helm said. “We just need families to know that we are here for them.”

Correction: A previous version of this story indicated that Jefferson County Board of Education member Linda Duncan said she didn't feel equipped at times to break up fights or handle severe disciplinary issue. That has been corrected to reflect that Duncan's comments were in reference to potential criminal violations.

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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