Six of the seven candidates for the Madison mayoral race met for a forum at First Unitarian Society Feb. 16. Among the topics discussed at length was the juvenile criminal justice system, particularly an extension of an ongoing debate regarding the stationing of police, called School Resource Officers, within Madison’s four public high schools.
These officers act as a critical stage in the school-to-prison pipeline and create an unwelcoming environment, especially for students of color, and their removal from these spaces would be an effective step in creating more equitable education. But this is not enough — the problems of the juvenile justice system are structural and require radical solutions.
Despite opposition, the school board decided to renew SRO contracts through the 2021-22 academic year in a 4-2 vote in Dec. 2018. In Oct. 2018, the board ended a meeting early as activists led by Freedom Inc., many of whom were students of color, spoke in opposition for more than an hour, before breaking into chants of “no cops in schools.”
Students of color described feeling targeted at school and the statistics seem to agree. An analysis of Madison SRO reports from the academic years of 2013-14 to 2015-16 by Families for Justice of Dane County found at least four arrests involving black students for every one arrest involving a white student.
Nonetheless, the school board chose to renew the contracts.
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When calls were made for these officials to resign, school board president Mary Burke said, “We are all elected officials. We earn the right to be in those seats.”
While Burke’s statement is not factually incorrect, it speaks to a larger problem with American democracy. Elected officials are not selected so that they may make decisions as they please, but rather should remain accountable to the people throughout their terms.
In a truly democratic process, there would be immediate consequences for a decision such as this one, which acts against the will of the constituency. That these officials are not instantly recallable indicates an unrepresentative system, in which elites like Burke can only be held accountable on election day — once every three years for school board officials.
While the school board has made its decision, it must still negotiate contract terms with the city. Thus, the alternates proposed by mayoral candidates are worth examining. All of the candidates at last Saturday’s forum stated that they would prefer not to have SROs in the city’s schools, though no promises have been made.
Of the six present, mayoral incumbent Paul Soglin and candidate Raj Shukla took one of the weakest positions, having stated simply that if the SRO program is to be continued, they would take measures to make sure it does not disproportionately target students of color.
These candidates seem to be missing a greater point — even if one could ensure that policing practices are non-discriminatory (which is easier said than done), police still do not belong in schools.
The mistakes of students should not be criminalized, but rather examined and corrected. Most of what SROs are responsible for would be better accomplished by hiring more counselors for students to talk to and the implementation of restorative justice policies to replace current, more punitive practices. While some believe that officers are still necessary to respond in crisis situations like a school shooting, Families for Justice of Dane County’s analysis also indicates that SROs were only physically present during one-third of reported incidents, calling into question their ability to intervene at all.
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Perhaps the best analysis of the issue came from candidate Satya Rhodes-Conway, who proposed a number of additional measures, including access to stable housing, healthy food and literacy programs.
Measures such as these attempt to address the root concerns which lead young people to commit crimes, rather than simply criminalizing young people. When housing and food are not guarantees, students cannot focus on education. If the next mayor of Madison wishes to reduce juvenile crime rates, they can begin by eliminating food and housing insecurities and help bring more stability to the lives of those at highest risk, rather than the current policy of criminalizing these students’ mistakes and preparing them for a path to incarceration.
Cops in schools are harmful to both the education and the general well-being of the students who attend these schools. If the city is truly committed to helping its students, it needs to provide positive resources and examples rather than penalizing bad behaviors. To continue funding for the stationing of SROs in schools indicates a disregard on the part of the school board for the wellbeing of its most vulnerable students.
Adam Fendos ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in international studies.