Certain schools struggling with high rates of crime in Wisconsin may soon be required to hire armed school resource officers (SROs) if they experience a high number of crimes, according to a bill passed by the state Assembly on March 7.
The bill comes after increasing reports of violent crimes at public schools across the nation.
Assembly Bill 69 states that if a school has more than 100 incidents of serious crimes in a semester, including homicide, sexual assault, burglary, robbery, battery, possession or use of illegal drugs, firearm possession or disorderly conduct in a semester, and at least 25 of those incidents result in an arrest, the school must hire an armed school resource officer to work at the school.
Under the bill, the cost of hiring an officer would be partially reimbursed by the state using federal COVID-19 relief money. The Wisconsin Department of Education said it could not calculate at present how many schools qualify under this criterion.
The bill was authored by Republicans, and marks a reversal of the decision by the state’s two largest districts in Milwaukee to ban armed SROs in schools in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death.
“Students and faculty need to feel safe when they’re at schools,” bill co-authors Representatives Nik Rettinger of Mukwonago and Cindi Duchow of the Town of Delafield wrote in a co-sponsored memo to colleagues. “Students, especially in light of the struggles experienced through virtual learning, should always have a school environment that encourages educational development and allows them to flourish.”
The bill, which was supported by the Milwaukee Police Association and statewide police unions, passed the House Chamber with a vote of 59–36.
Opponents included Milwaukee Public Schools, Disability Rights Wisconsin and the Wisconsin School Social Workers Association. The Wisconsin Association of School Boards raised concerns as well.
Democrats criticized the bill as a Republican attack on Madison and Milwaukee schools. Representative LaKeshia Myers of Milwaukee said her school board’s rules should not be interfered with, and accused Republicans of “wrapping yourself in fear.”
Representative Francesca Hong of Madison said increasing violence in schools is a result of Republicans choosing to not adequately fund public education.
Meanwhile, Republicans touted the bill as a common sense way to reduce violence in schools.
“It’s clear the status quo can’t continue,” the bill’s chief Assembly sponsor Representative Rettinger said. “I worry that if we stay on the current path, more students and faculty will be attacked.”
On the same day, the Chamber passed a related bill by a 61–35 vote that would require schools to collect and report information about crimes committed on school campuses, and to include the information on school report cards.
The Legislature passed the measure last session but Democratic Governor Tony Evers vetoed it.
The bills have sparked a lot of controversy on both sides of the aisle, with Republicans declaring that parents deserve to know if their children’s schools are failing, and Democrats arguing the bill does not do anything to stop violence.
“I’m not going to solve every problem with this. This is not a school safety bill. This is a school transparency bill,” bill sponsor Representative Cindi Duchow said.
Duchow added that schools should be safe places for students to learn and grow, and any measures that can be taken to increase safety should be considered. Having armed police officers on campus could deter would-be criminals and provide a sense of security for students and staff.
On the other hand, opponents of the bill claim the bill could have negative consequences for students, particularly students of color and students with disabilities.
According to lobbyists for the nonprofit Disability Rights, such groups are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, which leads to what they call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Critics worry that having police officers on campus will only increase the likelihood of students being arrested and funneled into the criminal justice system.
Advocacy specialist Joanne Juhnke with the organization cited data from the Center for Public Integrity that showed that students with disabilities more often had interactions with law enforcement.
“When police get involved in disability related outbursts, dysregulation, the student can get caught in a cascade of trauma,” Juhnke said. “They get handcuffed because they’re overwhelmed. They get punished because of their disability. And, the more you put police in schools, the more that’s going to happen.”
Additionally, some have raised concerns about the cost of hiring police officers. The bill states that the cost of hiring an officer would be partially reimbursed by the state using federal COVID-19 relief money. However, this is only a temporary solution. Once the federal relief money runs out, schools will be left to foot the bill for these officers themselves. This could be a significant burden on schools, many of which are already underfunded.
Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes strongly advocated for reinstating SROs in schools.
However, the chief said there needs to be clear guidelines in place for SROs to follow when dealing with students involved in crimes.
“We all make mistakes, but when you have someone that can exercise their judgment — that can exercise what police call discretion — we get a better outcome and that’s the way we’ve always policed. That’s the way I’ve always policed,” Barnes said.
Barnes also said the data compiled by advocacy groups can often be misleading as it does not include times when officers withheld from making an arrest.
“One of the things that I did when I was a Captain and I had an entire group of SROs, is that we documented the number of times where we could have made an arrest, but we didn’t. And so, what we end up getting is a greater benchmark of what the officers actually do,” Barnes said.
Both bills now head to the Senate for approval.