Following the movements for racial equality after George Floyd’s death, students and alumni in Upper Arlington have debated the importance of Student Resource Officers in schools.

BY JOSIE STEWART, ‘21. GRAPHICS BY SOPHIA SHEN, ’21. 

Following the death of George Floyd on May 25, the sustained efforts to reach racial equality have been felt across the country and in Upper Arlington. Black Lives Matter protests in Columbus continue months later and several hundred UA residents attended a similar protest for Floyd’s death earlier this summer as they marched through South UA’s neighborhoods.

These recent efforts, though, seem to have divided the community into two sides following a great amount of public discourse online, two arising petitions from students, alumni and parents and emerging yard signs on the corners of each street sharing their position on the police. While both “defend” and “defund” the police are trending in everyday conversation, surrounding communities such as Worthington have successfully removed Student Resource Officers (SROs) from their school buildings and have inspired a group of UA students and alumni, Golden Bears for Reform, to urge UA Schools to do the same.

Founding member of Golden Bears for Reform and 2019 UA graduate Dylan Carlson-Sirvent proposed this idea to his group and released a petition via social media in early June. The petition asked the district to end its contract with the UAPD and affirm its commitment to Black lives. It garnered over 500 signatures in about three days from parents, students, alumni, community groups and past or present educators.

A few days later, a competing petition was shared on social media which asked the district to “reject the request to end the contract with UAPD and affirm their commitment to school safety.” The petition but did not publicly show signatures.

Now, with two competing groups and students returning to school, the conversation continues.

WHERE DID THEY COME FROM?

Police were initially added into UA school buildings in 2014. The contract between the City of Upper Arlington and Upper Arlington Schools states that SROs would be added to support “the need for safe and secure schools and a safe academic learning environment for community youth.” With this, it stipulates that the mission of the SRO program is to strive to assist schools in securing this statement.

At the time, two SROs were stationed full time at UAHS: one special-duty officer at the senior doors and another officer splitting time between the two middle schools.

Following the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, the district went through an exhaustive safety report for students in schools and added recommendations to secure the safety of students. Aside from the stricter programs with student IDs and visitors, the report also resulted in the addition of two more SROs.

This same report states that the role of these SROs “goes beyond law enforcement as they help to build a positive school culture by providing an additional role model and confidant for students.”

Now, with the two petitions arising in the community, many supporters of continuing this contract with the UAPD cite the importance of having officers in the case of a school shooting or other potentially dangerous event.

“There’s the SROs who just sit by the door to protect. Ultimately, it’s against school shootings. That’s the intent of having them there,” said senior Nick Ortli. “I do think having someone like Officer Rice is very helpful because it just brings that line of communication. Everyone when they’re younger is probably afraid of the police. I always thought of them as people who if you did something wrong, you would immediately be arrested.”

Although Ortli is not positive of the effectiveness of the SROs, longtime community member and past UA graduate Sharon Maceyak believes that having police officers there makes for safer schools.

“I will tell you that a couple years ago, UA was really big about having police presence in the school and closing lunches and wanting to protect their children. All of the sudden this other side came up where they wanted to defund the police and basically get rid of them from schools,” Maceyak said. “I don’t know where that all comes from. There aren’t any schools that don’t have a police officer unless they’re private. With a police officer at the school, there is less of a chance that things will go awry.”

However, many students and groups doubt the ability of SROs to protect students in the case of a shooting and specifically cite schools in the Columbus area such as Worthington that removed their SROs this year.

“Obviously having police in schools makes people feel safer, but data has not found it to be conclusive that having police in schools necessarily changes the outcome of a mass shooting if it happens,” Sirvent said. “I think in order to solve the issue of mass shootings in the United States, it won’t be solved by police in schools.”

This data reflects that these shootings are rare and that crime has declined on school grounds recently as explained in the New York Times. On the other hand, some students don’t find that the officers in school make them feel safer.

“I personally never really thought [SROs] made me feel safer. I just never really made me feel different than a trusted adult I could talk to,” sophomore Ceylone Reighard Brooks said. “I guess I view police officers a little bit differently. As a person of color, you know there always could be a bias.”

In a statement from full-time Officer Jon Rice, he says that his safety is exactly the goal, though, as put in the safety report and contract.

“The most important job that I have is making sure that all 2,000 students 200 plus staff are safe from outside threats or threats within,” Rice said. “I am a Resource Officer and the key word here is a resource. On a daily basis, I meet with students who have issues and help them”

RESPONSIBILITIES

While SROs have been placed in schools for the protection of students, they carry out other responsibilities and establish positive relationships with students.

Rice is positioned at UAHS full time, while Officers Josh Luke and Travis Goodman are positioned full time at Hastings Middle School and Jones Middle School, respectively, and Officers E.J. Windham and Don Stanko rotate through the five elementary schools

At the high school, Rice states that his priority is keeping students safe, but he also engages with students in other ways. According to him, his duties include investigating traffic crashes or thefts, enforcing parking and other traffic laws, checking the property for strangers or construction workers and helping with programs in classes.

“The main part of my job is being available for the students and staff at any time that they may need assistance. I do quite a bit of listening and counseling throughout the day and tell every student that my door is always open if they need help,” Rice said. “I also participate in safety plans for students in need as well as emergency evacuation and safety plans for incidents and fire drills. I attend every dance, home football game, playoff games, open houses, prom, and graduation.”

Rice is also an administrator for the Stand Project, a club dedicated to spreading awareness about the dangers of alcohol and drug use, as well as providing students with alternative activities.

Here, his duties include facilitating funding and transportation, planning events with students and traveling to middle schools to educate students and find interested students.

“I am currently the Youth Engagement Chair for the Stand Project,” Rice said. “I can’t tell you how proud I am to know and work with the people who participate in the Stand Project.”

Rice works closely with students in the group and has maintained good relationships with many despite pushback against law enforcement nationwide.

“What is happening is an overgeneralization of school resource officers,” said Stand Project member Aidan Brennan, in response to the swaying public opinion on SRO presence in schools.

Recent outcry against SROs is largely due to the belief that many members of the police force unfairly punish people of color at higher rates than white people.

This has led to strong discourse online, specifically Facebook, where arrests data from the UAPD’s 2018 Annual Report were shared alongside the demographics of Upper Arlington. The report states that Black citizens accounted for 25.8 percent of arrests, while white citizens accounted for 70.0 percent of arrests. However, according to the Census Bureau, only 0.6% of Upper Arlington’s population is Black while 91.5% is white.

The report also includes data from the SROs in the middle and high schools. Included in this are 29 police reports, 130 parking violations, 13 misdemeanor charges, 21 felony charges, three felony arrests, three felony charges and 145 security checks at the high school.

Meanwhile, in the middle schools there were four reports, zero misdemeanor or felony charges or arrests and 513 security checks.

Also listed are 53 counts of student assistance for the high school. Some students use the SROs as resources for personal issues since they are in the building.

“When I was [struggling with mental health, Rice] offered to [let me] come in and talk and vent to someone. That meant something because I hadn’t really gotten that from a teacher or an administrator,” Ortli said. “Not saying that they wouldn’t because they obviously would, but that’s just how I had that connection with them. All of it just made me upset because everyone was tearing down the police name. It felt like wrongful blame because all of these UA police officers are just getting [criticized], and I don’t know anything they’ve done wrong. They’re held to a high standard.”

Some students, though, agree with defunding the police and believe that officers are in charge of too much and should not handle mental health issues.

“I feel like mental health workers could be a lot more beneficial than someone you think would punish you,” Reighard Brooks said. “[If officers were gone, I think putting the funding into] mental health would be best. If someone were depressed or anxious, I feel like if we had someone who can stop the small things it would be better than [an officer].”

Reighard Brooks also cited an article from the ACLU which recommends that schools have at minimum one counselor for every 250 students and one psychologist for every 750 students. In general, though, Ohio schools do not meet this standard with the state averaging 501 students to one counselor.

“It can help students feel more comfortable,” Reighard Brooks said. “I just feel like you wouldn’t want to go up to a police officer and say ‘Hey, I’m sad today.’ You want to talk to someone who you can be really close with.”

Reighard Brooks, along with Sirvent’s group believe that the funding for the SROs would be better spent achieving these recommendations. Currently, $535,000 is spent for four officers according to the SRO Billing Calculation for 2020, but Sirvent is still very understanding that the officers make some students and parents feel safer.

“The main concern that I have heard from people that were against the petition [to remove SROs] or supported it but were hesitant to sign it was that a lot of people are scared because the issue of mass shootings hasn’t gone away,” he said. “So they said ‘Well, if you take the police away isn’t it at least better to have police in schools as a safety precaution. I think I am definitely more sympathetic to that view having heard it.”

COMMUNITY SUPPORT

Throughout these movements, many students have been vocal on social media about their beliefs and how to support them. Residents around Upper Arlington have been doing the same through yard signs, protests, donations and social media posts.

One group, Equal UA, has created signs that say ‘Enough.’ in reference to police violence against people of color. According to their website, the group’s overall mission is to “help build a more inclusive and equitable culture where all people feel welcome and can fully participate in all aspects of life in Upper Arlington.” The signs were created after the death of George Floyd and were a fundraiser for the Columbus Freedom Fund, My Project USA and Asian American Community Services.

“The Enough signs were an emotional response to watching the killing of George Floyd after still recovering from the murder of Ahmaud Arbery,” the Equal UA Board said in a statement. “It was the representation of what many of us were feeling as we struggled to process the events in our country and the continual oppression of Black people in this country. It was not political. It was a human response that manifested in a sign.”

The group sold close to 1,200 signs and raised over $10,000 that was split between the three organizations.

Similarly, other UA residents have displayed signs that say ‘UA Loves UAPD’ in their yards. Although the signs are not targeted against each other, residents tend to express very different opinions with them.

Maceyak proposed the idea for the signs and created them with a group of friends.

“I had a group of friends that wanted to have these signs up because we just support the police. Then all of the sudden people wanted the signs. It started off as a thank you to the police department,” she said. “We had a big banner that we put out at the Municipal Building, and we could only keep it up for 24 hours, but then people wanted it. So, we were like ‘Okay, if people want them, they can have them.’”

The group did not specifically advertise these signs with most spreading the information by word of mouth. As of July, the group had given away about 300 signs from community members approaching them.

Both groups have had a wide variety of both support and backlash for their products.

“We’ve talked to probably about 200 people about delivering these signs and they all say ‘Well, why wouldn’t somebody want this in their yard,’” Maceyak said. “There’s just so much support for the police in Upper Arlington. Not everyone is on social media, so we just talk to them. We’ve had people cry when we came to their door.”

Similarly, the Equal UA Board believes that based on the responses to their signs, the community has found allies and “there is progress being made.”

Despite this, both have also seen some disappearances of signs from yards.

“This isn’t an anti-other group message in any way, shape or form. I believe as many others do that everyone is allowed to have an opinion. We’re spreading love is how I look at it,” Maceyak said. “I just wish that we could all come together. I feel bad for the kids and the high schoolers and middle schoolers [who] have to see this because it’s kind of embarrassing.”

Despite having a different outlook, Equal UA shares a similar overall goal.

“Several Enough and Equal UA yard signs were taken from residents’ front yards this summer,” the Board said. “Even though yard signs have been stolen, Equal UA hopes not to focus on the theft of the signs but focus instead on moving our mission forward in Upper Arlington. While it is easy to get caught up with stolen lawn signs, the real issue is to relentlessly promote open, healthy and respectful civic dialogue about the importance of building a more inclusive and equitable culture where all people feel welcome and can fully participate in all aspects of life in Upper Arlington.”

THE CONVERSATION

Despite students not returning to the building as usual due to COVID-19, interactions with SROs are still changing.

“I have noticed a change [since the movement following Floyd’s death] and so has most of the department. We discuss the things we see and hear during our shifts every day,” Rice said. “We have seen yard signs supporting us and have received a lot of cards and letters from all ages. I noticed when I’m on patrol more people are waving to me and giving the thumbs up for support. I have received letters of support from UAHS students, staff and the administration as well.”

Even with some support, groups like Golden Bears for Reform in Upper Arlingotn and others nationwide still are pushing to end contracts and reach racial equity.

“Maybe it won’t be that they end the program right away or for a year, but I think that the end goal should be to have schools that don’t need to be policed because that’s pretty unique to the United States,” Sirvent said. “I’m not so sure that having police in schools necessarily makes students that much safer and I think in the end we should strive to have schools that shouldn’t have police in them. We shouldn’t normalize that for students to have police armed and walking around their hallways.”

According to Education Week, 29% of schools in the US have police officers stationed in the buildings. Even with the two petitions and continued conversation, the Board of Education has responded little to requests concerning SROs.

“We encourage the school district to have continued dialogue with students. We believe in asking the students what school culture they want to cultivate and celebrate,” the Equal UA Board said.

The district offered to host a town hall meeting to discuss this topic but a date has not been set yet.

“We believe [students’] feedback and insights are needed when looking at where resources are being allocated,” the Board continued. “This speaks to the mantra, ‘Not about them without them.’ Students need to be at the table where decisions are made that impacts their school experience.”