Police stationed in Kingston schools switch to casual uniforms, make other changes

The Kingston City School District’s Board of Education last week approved changes to the contracts for school resource officers (SROs), who are hired from the Kingston City and Ulster Town police departments. 

The measure followed a lengthy discussion about the role of the SRO and passed by a 7-1 vote, with Kathy Collins voting against and Sean Spicer absent. 

In November, the School Board reviewed 23 changes suggested during a series of community forums, and through letters and e-mails. Among the recommended changes were disallowing the SRO to discipline students; formalizing the complaint process; adding further detail to daily activity logs; disallowing the serving of non-school warrants on district property; and training in implicit bias, crisis intervention, cultural diversity, community engagement, and restorative justice practices. 

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“While students can be arrested and taken into custody while on school property for violent or criminal behavior, like drugs or weapons possession, that occur on campus, SROs will not be serving warrants that are not school-related,” Superintendent Paul Padalino said during the School Board meeting held on Wednesday, December 8. 

During that meeting, Board President James Shaughnessy said that some of the suggestions may have been based upon misunderstandings of the role of the SRO and rules that were already in place. 

“The requirement that school resource officers do not administer discipline is state law,” Shaughnessy said. “It’s not something that we’ve incorporated into our SRO agreements because that’s the way we want it. That’s the way it has to be.”

Shaughnessy added that if an SRO is breaking up a fight, that isn’t discipline. “Breaking up a fight is breaking up a fight,” he said. “Discipline is the consequence that is assigned to a student for being in a fight, and that’s done by the administration. And it’s always been done by the administration. An SRO does not have the authority, and has never had the authority, to assign a student to detention or in-school suspension or out-of-school suspension. That’s all done by the administrators of the building.”

Also changing is how the SRO looks; they will no longer wear a standard police uniform, and will instead move to a “more relaxed and approachable look of regular uniform trousers, comfortable shoes, and a golf shirt with law enforcement insignia on the upper breast,” according to Spicer during a November meeting. 

Collins said that after reviewing community input, she believed there are still issues with the SRO program that were not addressed by the contractual changes. 

“The SRO committee in our community described many benefits that are provided by SROs; most of those do not necessarily require that we have armed officers in the hallways of our schools,” Collins said. “Police can still provide anti-bullying education, direct traffic outside our schools, be assigned a key role in responding to crime issues and violence issues in our schools without actually being armed in the hallways.”

Collins added that the continued use of SROs might be seen to directly contradict the district’s goals of “creating an inclusive environment within our district…that we will identify and eliminate systemic barriers to equity. 

“We also talk often about basing policy on data,” Collins said. “Data suggests SROs don’t reduce violence in schools, and data suggests that having armed police in schools results in disproportionate discipline or attention toward Black, brown and disabled students. So I struggle to really reconcile our commitment to equity with our commitment to the SRO program. What problem is it we’re trying to address by employing SROs?…It’s really hard for me to support these contracts or even the changes in these contracts, because I suspect that they’re not actually the solutions to the problems that we’re trying to solve in our district.” 

Fellow Trustee Suzanne Jordan said that while she understood and agreed with some of Collins’ points, she believed it was possible to achieve the district’s goals with the SRO program intact. 

“To me, it’s not about one or the other,” Jordan said. “It’s about having it all so that we have the security that we require and the support we require to have all students feeling safe in every way.”

She added that the community discussion around the SRO program was difficult because the two sides ultimately wanted the same thing: Safe and welcoming schools. 

“What was unfortunate, I felt, was that there wasn’t a way of having those two parts of our community come together and really work it out and understand the other’s perception,” she said. “Because they’re all concerned.”

The role of the SRO in Kingston schools has been debated in and outside of committee over the past few years, with a petition started on MoveOn by Rise Up Kingston calling for the immediate removal of school resource officers from the district reaching 1,824 signatures, and a petition advocating for keeping the SRO started by KAFE (Kingston Action For Education) on change.org reaching 1,414. 

The district’s annual 2019-20 SRO contracts paid $369,369 to the City of Kingston and $69,369 to the Town of Ulster. Kingston’s police department provides two officers for Kingston High School and one for J. Watson Bailey Middle School, while Ulster’s police department provides one officer for M. Clifford Miller Middle School.