GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan representatives have included $50 million in next year’s budget proposal to help schools hire on-site, full-time, sworn police officers.
The positions are most often referred to as school resource officers (SROs), and their numbers grew after the mass shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999.
Michigan representatives have proposed $500 million in school aid dollars for fiscal year 2022-2023, which includes $50 million that’s earmarked to help districts fund school resource officers.
The budget proposal also provides funding for school safety grants, risk assessments and increased mental health and support services in schools.
“We are using an all-of-the-above approach, because we want to look at everyone’s ideas and make our schools as safe as possible. Our children need that peace of mind, and Michigan families deserve it,” House Appropriations Chair Rep. Tom Alberts, R- Lowell, said in a statement to News 8 about the funding. “That is why we’ve made real progress in several different areas that all help make schools safer piece by piece. That includes early prevention and mental health support, physical upgrades to our school buildings, grants for districts who want to make upgrades of their own, information sharing for best practices, and help hiring school resource officers. And with the House task force on school safety due to present their findings in the next few weeks, we will soon have many more reforms and improvements in front of us that come directly from parents, police, and experts who’ve been at the forefront of solving these issues. Those changes are going to make a real difference for our local schools.”
Additionally, representatives passed a bill Thursday to create a fund schools can tap to hire firms to build accurate, updated digital maps of school properties, which districts would share with emergency responders.
A bipartisan task force in the state House, created after the Oxford school shooting, is expected to release more school safety recommendations in a couple weeks.
POLICE SHORTAGE IMPACTS SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICERS
The average annual cost of a SRO is around $100,000, according to the Michigan Sheriff’s Association. It said the $50 million state lawmakers are proposing would cover around 500 school resource officers.
It’s a challenge to track the exact number of school resource officers in Michigan’s 886 public school districts but it’s clear not all jurisdictions have the funding nor resources to hire sworn officers.
“Like every other department, at least in Van Buren County, there’s a shortage of police officers so we (don’t) have that person available,” said Tressa Beltran, police chief in the small town of Hartford.
Beltran said Hartford has had a school resource officer in the past but was forced to eliminate the position due to funding shortfalls.
Hartford has four full-time patrol officers, one part-time and 13 reserve officers.
Beltran said she tried to offer up a very experienced, armed reserve officer with degrees in nursing and criminal justice to fill the role, but Beltran said the superintendent of Hartford Public Schools only wanted a sworn officer.
“In a perfect world, it would be a certified officer. I just don’t have that luxury right now,” said Beltran, who noted the district has since hired a new superintendent.
“He has reached out to me to get together to try to discuss what we’re going to do,” said Beltran. “We are trying to work with the schools. Maybe we would pay half and they’d paid half. Whatever it takes to get an officer in there because again it comes down to our children’s safety.”
School districts often share the cost of resource officers with the law enforcement agency.
BYRON CENTER SRO SEIZED GUN
Of the 12 school districts that fall under the jurisdiction of the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, 11 have at least one on-site, certified deputy, including Byron Center Public Schools.
It was BCPS’s school resource officer who responded immediately last October when a student reported a classmate had a weapon in his backpack.
Deputy Andrew Jonkman seized the gun, which had an extended magazine with 32 live rounds.
The teen who brought the gun to school is now facing charges for allegedly killing his own father in April.
“Whether it’s a weapon or contraband in that locker, inside of a backpack, a school resource officer can go directly to that location and search,” Sgt. Eric Brunner told News 8, emphasizing that, unlike patrol officers, SROs do not need a search warrant.
Brunner, who previously served as Rockford Public Schools’ SRO, said school resource officers are also considered school administrators and can, therefore, conduct searches on school premises without a warrant.
“To be able to take immediate action, working with the school administration is always the best resolution,” he said.
Brunner said SROs are not involved in disciplining students and don’t necessarily file police reports depending on the nature of an incident.
“Police officers in general, and especially school resource officers, have discretion. Just because I’m a school resource officer in the district, every time I’m told of something in the building, it’s not a police report. Everything is not a ticket. Everything is not a charge. There are many times when mentoring that student, taking that moment to speak into that young person’s life, that’s pretty much going to be the end of it. If there’s school discipline, that’s up to school administrators,” explained Brunner.
CRITICS CALL FOR OTHER RESOURCES
But there are critics of placing police in school hallways and those voices grew louder after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020.
In Kent County, one of 12 school districts that falls under the sheriff’s jurisdiction — Kentwood Public Schools — declined to bring on a school resource officer.
After a graduation ceremony on May 19, two people were shot on the grounds of East Kentwood High School, which falls outside Kentwood city limits, putting it in the sheriff’s jurisdiction.
Kentwood superintendent Kevin Polston did not specify to News 8 why his district does not employ a full-time on-site school resource deputy.
“As part of our safety measures, our partners in law enforcement are routinely on campus in support of events and school operations,” wrote Polston in an email to News 8, noting he met with the district’s “partner law enforcement agencies” when he became superintendent last fall.
“Both meetings went very well. … This partnership proactively works to ensure the ongoing safety and security of our students, teachers, staff members and community members. … We feel very good about the support that law enforcement has provided KPS. In alignment with our ongoing commitment to the safety and wellbeing of our students, staff, and community, we continually evaluate our safety plan. This work is ongoing, and our discussions continue with both the Kent County Sheriff’s Office and the Kentwood City Police Department,” he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union is one of the entities that questions the placement of sworn police in schools.
“We are grieving with the families and community of Robb Elementary School after this horrific tragedy. Resources to schools should ensure that the needs of students and their families are being met before a tragedy like this happens. Many schools are under resourced and rather than adding police, our focus should be adding more teachers, social workers, and counselors,” wrote ACLU of Michigan executive director Loren Khogali in an emailed statement.
The National Campaign for Police Free Schools, based in Washington D.C., echoed the ACLU’s concerns.
“Police did not keep the students and teachers of Robb Elementary safe. Proposals that increase the presence of police, guns and other militarized approaches to school safety only put gasoline on the fire. We must instead invest in mental health supports and professionals, restorative justice, and trauma-informed practices,” wrote Jonathon Smith, lead spokesperson for the National Campaign for Police Free Schools.
But the National Association of School Resource Officers said there’s plenty of research proving the value of SROs.
“A database of the National Police Foundations Averted School Violence project is full of case studies that describe … SRO interventions,” according to NASRO’s website, which linked readers to a 2020 report, “School Resource Officers: Averted School Violence Special Report,” which described 12 incidents from that database.