ROCHESTER – If the Rochester school district wants to move away from designated police in schools, it will have to navigate a host of complex issues to make up for that security.
That's the message consultants gave to the Rochester school board Tuesday. The board appears poised to keep in place a contract with local police to provide school resource officers (SROs) for the district.
Yet some board members continue to question whether SROs are appropriate for an increasingly diverse student population given the racial tensions over policing in the U.S. in recent years.
Board members approved adding a sixth officer earlier this year after district officials found SROs were swamped addressing issues across the district, including at two new schools that opened last fall. At the time, several board members wondered whether adding another officer was best for students.
The board in March directed Superintendent Kent Pekel to explore alternatives to SROs.
This isn't the first time policing in schools has come up in Rochester, as the district has debated whether to keep SROs in classrooms before George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020 kicked off national conversations and civil unrest.
Proponents say school resource officers help make schools safer; critics say a police presence escalates behavioral and racial conflict in the classroom.
Rochester's board updated and approved the district's SRO contract in June, which fleshes out boundaries between SROs and district officials when it comes to student discipline. The district has been studying SRO contact in schools as part of its strategic plan.
It appears a majority of Rochester students and staff support keeping police in school buildings. A survey found 98% of school administrators supported having SROs, while the 2022 Minnesota Student Survey found about 90% or more students in eighth, ninth and 11th grade thought it's a good idea to have SROs in their schools.
Districts have few proven options outside of SROs. School officials could train staff on security measures and de-escalation, or even create a district police department, but those solutions would involve major costs and liability issues.
"Have you asked your insurance carrier what this change would do to your insurance?" Jason Matlock, a former security head at Minneapolis Public Schools, asked board members.
Matlock pointed out that there's no perfect way to keep schools safe, and it often comes down to building relationships with students. There's little to no specific training for SROs in police programs, so anyone who steps into that role will probably need district resources to be successful. And sometimes problems can arise when police react the way they're trained to.
"A lot of this work isn't about how you work with the police officers … but it's how you work with your staff," Matlock said.
Board members have until June to propose changing or terminating the district's contract with the Rochester district for the next school year, though Pekel said after the meeting that it's unlikely the board will do so. Board members told Pekel they would be interested in having more say in hiring SROs, but Pekel said there are enough measures and relationships in place with Rochester police to reassign officers if they aren't a good fit in a school.
Board member Jess Garcia said she was pleased with the discussion as it could help some of her colleagues see a new perspective on policing.
"It gives us some shared language to use about our interests and what we want to see moving forward," she said.