Eau Claire school district Administration Building

Eau Claire school district Administration Building, 500 Main St.

EAU CLAIRE — Members of the Eau Claire school board on Monday called for a closer look at the role of school resource officers inside five Eau Claire schools.

Several board members expressed concern with student data that stemmed from the SRO program’s annual report.

A yearly review of the school district’s partnership with the Eau Claire Police Department found that during the 2020-21 school year, school resource officers generally had more contacts with students of color than they did with white students.

During the current school year, 5% of the district’s student body identified as two or more races; those students made up 9% of students who had contact with school resource officers. About 2.6% of the district’s student body is Black this year, and Black students made up about 5% of SRO contacts for the 2020-21 school year.

Districtwide, white and Hispanic students were slightly underrepresented in SRO contacts this year; about 75% of the district’s student body this year is white, and white students made up about 72% of students who had contact with SROs. About 6.2% of the student body this year is Hispanic, but about 3% of students, districtwide, who had contact with SROs were Hispanic.

However, although Hispanic students were underrepresented in SRO contacts at the three middle schools, SRO contact with Hispanic students was significantly overrepresented at both high schools, according to district data.

This year Asian students were approximately equally represented in the percentage of students who had contact with SROs.

Five school resource officers work at five different Eau Claire schools: Memorial and North high schools and South, Northstar and DeLong middle schools.

The district pays 50% of the cost of the officers, and the Police Department pays the other half. The partnership began in 1995, according to school district documents.

In general, SROs were more likely to have contact with male students (57% of contacts) than with female students (43% of contacts) this year, according to district figures.

“Contacts” between SROs and students are sorted into categories.

Contacts can involve student welfare, an ordinance violation, a criminal investigation or another type of incident.

About 32% of SRO contacts with students this year were due to criminal investigations; 28% had to do with student welfare and 23% had to do with an ordinance violation, according to district figures.

Board members concerned with data

School board members said Monday they were disappointed and concerned with the data involving students of color.

“I realize we’re talking about some things that can skew this data,” said school board President Tim Nordin. “But as I look across our five schools where this data is reported, Black, Latinx and students identifying as two or more races are overrepresented in contacts with SROs at Memorial and North. Black and multiracial students are overrepresented at DeLong. Latinx students are slightly overrepresented at Northstar, and at South all three of those groups are overrepresented.”

Nordin called the data “problematic, and not overall better than last year.”

“Many of these contacts with students are positive ones. I’d ask, why do Black and Latinx students, and students of two or more races, need more positive contacts than their white peers, if you want to call them positive, even?” Nordin said. “This is a real issue for me … I’m really troubled, for the second year in a row, by this data.”

School board Vice President Lori Bica asked if the district can collect data on the SROs’ impact on students, and if a majority of those impacts are positive.

“There’s a claim that the SROs have a profound positive impact ... but we’ve not really talked about those data,” Bica said. “Where are those data? What shows the significant impact the SROs have on students’ lives? We’d need student data, family data, even officer data to be able to demonstrate this claim.”

Bica also called for the board to more closely examine the SRO data and consider looking for “an alternative model,” which might mean removing SROs from schools or finding “a different way for a relationship with Eau Claire police in our schools,” she said.

Board member Erica Zerr wondered if school psychologists, counselors and social workers would better serve students who are looking for guidance or mentorship from adults at their schools.

“When the decision is made to go to an SRO, are (students) being referred also to a counselor? Are they being given a choice?” Zerr asked. “Is there some sort of reason why students or staff or parents would be choosing a referral to an SRO as opposed to a school psychologist or social worker?”

Kim Koller, executive director of administration, cautioned that SRO data from the current school year pulls from a much smaller pool of SRO contacts than usual, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

SROs had 243 contacts with students, staff and families this year, Koller said; at the same time last year, SROs had had about 1,350 contacts.

ECPD Deputy Chief Derek Thomas, who oversees the SRO program, told the school board the SROs are hand-picked, experienced and facilitate many positive interactions with students.

“I do believe the presence of our school resource officers makes schools safer,” Thomas said Monday. “ … Our SROs do not patrol the hallways. They’re not purposely going out and looking for infractions. They’re merely a resource for the student body, support for the administrative staff and (they) develop positive relationships with kids so they have a go-to person within the school that’s easy access, that they’re familiar with.”

The board’s Policy and Governance Committee will meet virtually at 1 p.m. Thursday to discuss, among other items, the school district’s SRO policy.

School administrators on Monday asked that the Policy and Governance Committee “clearly delineate the role of the SROs” so school district staff can distinguish between disciplinary conduct, which should be handled by the school, and by illegal conduct, which may be handled by law enforcement, Koller said.

Administrators also ask that the board create “clear guidelines regarding the data the board would like to be collected and how it would like for that data to be reported,” Koller said.

In other school district news:

  • The school board on Monday approved an expansion for the Eau Claire Virtual School. School officials and board members have said they hope to appeal to students who enjoyed all-virtual classes during the pandemic. The virtual school, which began in 2019 with 23 students, will remove its enrollment cap this year and expand the grades it accepts from 4th to 12th grade to K-12. The virtual school program is now open to students both inside and outside the school district.
  • The board also voted to approve the district leasing a new building in Eau Claire for its transition program for 18- to 21-year-olds. The district is set to lease space at 2132 EastRidge Center on Hastings Way for the program, which teaches older special education students about independent living, social skills, employment and advocating for themselves. The school district will bid out the cost of renovating the building.
  • The school board unanimously approved a formal statement about equity. The statement says the district will aim to eliminate “the systemic racism present in our society and schools while building an equitable and inclusive school community.” The statement also mentions the state’s and district’s achievement gap and disparate suspension rate between students of color and white students, and says the district acknowledges and is “committed to dismantling” inequalities between student groups.

Contact: 715-833-9206, sarah.seifert@ecpc.com, @sarahaseifert on Twitter

Sarah Seifert is the L-T's education and health reporter. She has worked as a journalist in the Chippewa Valley since 2017 and joined the L-T in 2019. Get in touch at sarah.seifert@ecpc.com or on Twitter @sarahaseifert.