After the La Crosse School District announced its decision to keep three School Resource Officers for the 2022-23 school year, there were a lot of questions regarding what the SRO program will look like in the future.
The district’s original plan was to phase out the SROs over the course of two years. Starting with five officers in 2020 and and dropping down to only two by this July.
Two weeks ago, however, the district announced that after re-evaluating the plan, it will be keeping the number of SROs at three.
Last week, La Crosse Schools Superintendent, Dr. Aaron Engel, discussed those changes on WIZM’s La Crosse Talk PM.
“We looked at the calls that we were getting for service in our schools and we found that right now with three SROs, they were available to respond 72% of the time.” Engel explained. “We want to make sure that when a police officer is needed that they have special training or special dispositions to support school-age youth and that led us to keep three for next year.”
Engel went on to talk about the importance of having trained mental health professionals at the schools who work closely with the officers to ensure each situation is handled correctly.
“Oftentimes when a student is in crisis,” Engel said, “it’s a combined response that might be from a school counselor, the principal, and an SRO who is present to help students through whatever issue that may be.”
The district has been working to implement additional social services and mental health programs, although it takes some time to see the effects. It hired two social workers last year, as well as two individuals who focus on mental health counseling.
“We have proactive social services that we’re building up and mental health interventions,” Engel said, “but with this pandemic, they just haven’t been able to get fully on board yet to really make an impact on some of those needs.”
Another key factor in keeping the SROs was a recent drop in the arrest rates of students. Over the past three years the arrest rates of juveniles in the district went from 14% to just 3.9%
“We analyzed a lot of data and looked at what’s been going on in our community over the last couple of years and we noticed that the arrest rate of juveniles has fallen dramatically in La Crosse,” Engel explained. “One thing we were curious about is, did our percentage change differently than other school districts? What we found is that, in the same period of time, other districts that are similar to us had an increase in arrest rates whereas ours substantially decreased.”
Over the past few months, students have been making headlines protesting the removal of the SROs. Recently, a petition was circulated calling for the board to reconsider its plan, which received over 300 signatures.
Engel explained that while student feedback is important, it was not the only factor that went into this decision.
“We are always listening to our students and our community, and it does have an impact, but we’re really focused on the goals of that program which was providing specially trained officers,” Engel said. “We’ve heard students from the other perspective as well at school board meetings. We’ve heard students advocating for no SROs, and students advocating for more SROs, so it’s kind of weighing all of that and trying to figure out what the best balance is as we move forward.”
Some students who opposed the SROs stated that the visual presence of an armed officer can be alarming, so the district has been working to make the officers’ presence less visible.
“Our school resource officers are now in plain clothes and have concealed carry and they take unmarked squad cars to school, so there’s not this obvious visible presence that makes it feel like security is present,” Engel said. “They’re there to help, They’re there to respond, but they’re there in a more subtle way now.”