LMPD school resource officer at JCPS

FILE PHOTO: A Louisville Metro Police Department school resource officer talks to Jefferson County Public Schools students. 

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The security proposal unveiled by Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Marty Pollio is facing public scrutiny ahead of a possible board vote later this month.

Pollio laid out his administration’s plan to hire safety administrators at every JCPS middle and high school and to create a team of about 30 armed school safety officers to patrol geographic areas covering between three and seven schools during a Jefferson County Board of Education meeting Tuesday.

The proposed timeline for the district’s plan, estimated to cost between $4 million and $5 million, has the school board voting on an organizational chart and job descriptions for the newly created safety positions by Jan. 26, and JCPS has a virtual town hall scheduled Wednesday to gather feedback on the new security plan.

Pollio’s plan to have school safety officers primarily work from their patrol cars to respond quickly to situations at schools has drawn concerns from Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“The idea of working primarily from your car really goes against every concept of community-based policing that there is,” Canady said Wednesday. “... The way we solve crime in communities, the way we conduct thorough investigations and get the facts is not by law enforcement sitting in their car. It's by building relationships. When I was a police officer, I was told in no uncertain terms when I came into this work to get out of your police car, get out of your patrol car and get to know the people in the community that you're serving.”

The presence of law enforcement in JCPS schools has been a divisive subject in recent years.

Kentucky’s largest school district has been without school resource officers since before the 2019-20 academic year. Louisville Metro pulled 17 LMPD officers from JCPS schools because of budget cuts, and a split school board did not approve contracts with other local law enforcement agencies for 11 more officers.

Talks of creating an internal security force at JCPS stalled at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Tuesday’s meeting was the first public opportunity for school board members to scrutinize Pollio’s proposal to bring safety administrators inside middle and high schools and have teams of school safety officers patrolling their assigned campuses.

“It just comes with trust. It really does,” said Tyra Walker, a JCPS teacher and parent who has been among those against having armed officers inside schools. “... Some of our students have trauma regarding SROs and police officers or any gun just being visible at school.”

Safety administrators would be responsible for building relationships with students and staff inside buildings and for handling school-level safety issues like threat assessments, Pollio said during Tuesday’s meeting. The district is also exploring ways that students can file reports with their schools’ safety administrators after school hours, he said.

“I see this person as being somebody who would be consistently in the hallways, the cafeteria, the entrance to school, the exit to school, even stopping by classrooms, maybe speaking to classes, building relationships,” Pollio said of safety administrators.

Safety administrators and principals would have direct contact with school safety officers, who could respond to situations “within minutes,” Pollio said.

“SSOs will be primarily in their cars in order to respond quickly to a school that needs them,” he said.

Concerns of safety officers’ response times are “incredibly valid,” Canady said. He highlighted two instances in which officers were able to respond quickly to situations inside schools: a fatal stabbing at an Alabama high school in 2002 and a 2018 shooting inside a Maryland high school that left one student dead and another injured.

The 17-year-old gunman in the 2018 incident took his own life after he was confronted by a school resource officer inside the building, according to news reports.

“I think we have to be honest with ourselves and ask the question: How many more may have lost their lives had he not been there?” Canady said of the officer in the Maryland school shooting.

Some resource officers have come under scrutiny for their responses to emergencies in schools. The officer stationed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School when a shooter killed 17 people in 2018 faces child negligence charges after he failed to respond to the incident, according to news reports.

JCPS is not the only school district to reconsider the presence of law enforcement in schools. Canady said about 30 districts removed police from their schools in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death in police custody in 2020.  The Minneapolis officer convicted of murder, manslaughter and unintentional murder in Floyd’s death was sentenced to 22-and-a-half years in prison.

Canady said problems with school resource officer programs can be fixed without “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” and scrapping them entirely.

“In my opinion, that should have been the first approach of any district that was working in the shadow of the George Ford murder as to how they’re going to look at law enforcement differently as opposed to just completely throwing them out of the school environment,” he said. “... We're dealing with a level of violence in our society right now that is ultimately – it already is – going to find its way into the school environment. Schools are microcosms of our communities, so to have removed those protectors right as we're dealing with this significant problem is very concerning.”

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