A public hearing on a report from Kingston’s police reform task force focused almost entirely on a recommendation to possibly remove school resource officers, or SROs, from Kingston’s schools, due to concerns about “racism, brutality and misallocation of community resources.” The recommendation suggests removal as a last resort if other reform measures could not be implemented.
Of the 12 speakers, seven favored keeping SROs in schools while five wanted them removed. All 18 written comments favored keeping SROS in schools.
Steven Spicer, vice president of the school board and the chair of the SRO advisory committee, said the current agreement states “the SRO shall not serve as a school disciplinarian, as an enforcer of school regulations, or in place of school-based mental health providers, and the SRO shall not use police powers to address traditional school discipline issues.
He emphasized how SROs do not make decisions of disciplinary actions for students and how that is a function for school administration only.
Re-envision Public Safety Task Force member Amy Shapiro said that when she talked to members of the community she heard “numerous stories involving trauma to students at the hands of the SROs.”
“These stories imply that the current agreement isn’t being followed and that SROs are serving as school disciplinarians,” read the report.
The report states that black and brown children are disproportionately disciplined in schools and that those who are disciplined are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system.
The report doesn’t recommend eliminating SROs as the first solution. Instead, it suggests the language of the current agreement should include “additional specifics around restraints and student privacy.” (It cites a document from NYCLU with specifics on how these policies should be reformed.) It also suggests additional steps regarding training, collection of data and the development of a shared understanding to ensure that the agreement is followed in practice. Other suggestions included tracking informal complaints and that SROs be plain-clothed and not bring firearms to school.
If an agreement that included those suggestions could not be put in place, only then does the report recommend removing SROs from schools.
Speakers in favor of removing SROs shared experiences of their own negative interactions with the officers, discussed the “school to prison pipeline,” and why more mental health professionals would be a better allocation of the money.
“I’d like to remind folks that while some folks may feel safer because there are SROs in our schools, that doesn’t make it a fact,” said Elizabeth Render. “The topic has been so highly contested that it needs to be understood it matters who is saying they feel safer. It shouldn’t be parents or grandparents of white students who may or may not have children in the district right now. We need to listen to the black voices of Kingston and the black leadership.”
Lisa Royer recalled her daughter’s experience with SROs in 2017 in an incident in which she and others alleged that they were mistreated after officers responded to a complaint of trespassing on school grounds.
On the other side, Suzanne Timbrouck related a story of how officers went out of their way to check on her children when they were grieving from the death of a loved one.
Other SRO supporters shared stories of positive experiences with officers. They said there have been only two formal complaints and that SROs make schools safer.
“It is not unreasonable to think that there are students currently bringing knives and guns into our high school and removing SROs would certainly send the wrong message to these students,” said Val Dwyer. “It will put all of our students at risk.”
Dwyer also said the report should include more Kingston-specific language. She said that the task force never took into consideration the increase in gun violence the city has experienced recently, for example.
Pat Pellicano said while there is a lack of data now for most of the recommendations, the national data should be enough to continue forward with the work and the rest should be guided by black and brown voices.
Others voiced support for mental health de-escalation teams as an alternative to police while some felt it is irresponsible to replace police with mental health professionals.
The public comment period remains open until February 17 at noon.
The task force’s report isn’t the first time the issue has come up. Over the summer, activist group Rise Up Kingston created an online petition that called for the immediate removal of SROs from Kingston schools. The petition stated that the $369,389.90 the school spends on SROs should be reinvested into mental health and community resources for children in the district. The petition received 1,817 signatures. On the other side, Kingston Action for Education created a petition for those who are in support of keeping SROs. The petition states that officers are able to maintain an atmosphere where students, teachers and staff feel safe. It received 1,408 signatures.