The debate over the need for a greater police presence in the Kingston City School District continued last week, with detractors of the school resource officer (SRO) program speaking out at a June 15 meeting of the Board of Education.
“It worries me that there’s a vocal minority out there pushing really hard right now to see the SRO thing get bumped up,” said Justin Hoekstra, a member of Citizen Action of New York’s Hudson Valley chapter. “I have a student, he’s a young man of color, and I know for him, cops don’t make him feel safe. And know from all of the research that I’ve digested…they don’t make schools a safer place. What works is create a sense of community.”
On Tuesday, May 24, an 18-year old gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas with a semi-automatic rifle and killed 19 students and two teachers. The massacre happened just 10 days after an 18-year old white supremacist killed ten Black people in Buffalo, also with a semiautomatic rifle. The deadly incidents, along with a spate of other mass shootings across the country, reignited debates about gun rights and school safety nationwide and locally.
In the KCSD, it began with a School Board meeting held on Wednesday, June 1, when five people spoke in favor of expanding the SRO program into the district’s seven elementary schools. The KCSD currently has two Kingston Police officers serving as SROs at Kingston High School and one at J. Watson Bailey Middle School; M. Clifford Miller Middle School has an SRO from the Town of Ulster Police Department. And for some, that’s not enough.
“I look up at the wall and I see the mission statement: It says, mission ‘We inspire. We educate, we graduate all students all the time,’” local citizen Scott Denny said, at a previous meeting. “I don’t see the word ‘safety’ on that at all. That’s the primary responsibility of this Board. That’s it. End of story. There needs to be armed SROs in this school, that’s all there is to it. And anybody in this room that doesn’t vote accordingly to support that shouldn’t be on this Board, plain and simple. This isn’t rocket science guys…This is about protecting children that aren’t yours. You don’t have the right to put them in harm’s way. Get it together.”
But other voices opposing increasing the SRO were heard at the next School Board meeting, Wednesday, June 15.
“Experts conclude that the best way to deter future shootings is not through increased policing, rather through improving the connections in our schools,” said Malia Cordel, a candidate for School Board on last month’s ballot. “And the event in Uvalde demonstrated that things like more police and more active shooter drills are definitely not the answer.”
Cordel suggested that the district increase mental health support for students, teachers and staff; as well as training teachers and staff in practicing peaceful conflict resolution methods and trauma-informed approaches to classroom management. Like Hoekstra, Cordel said she believed it was important to create a greater sense of community, particularly at Kingston High School and in the district’s two middle schools.
“This should include fostering a supportive school environment where students feel safe to talk to each other and to staff,” Cordel said. “And I understand that that is not the case for some high schoolers.”
The debate over the role of the SRO in the district’s schools is not new. Last 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. The following month, the Board approved the framework of a new SRO contract implementing many of those changes.
Prior to the public speaking session, Superintendent Paul Padalino said that the district is focusing primarily on ensuring its current safety procedures are implemented, and has yet to reopen discussion about expanding the SRO program.
“A lot of (external) conversations have been about school resource officers or armed security guards in our buildings,” Padalino said. “The Board and administration have not discussed that. Nor are we necessarily in favor of that type of security within our buildings. Nor do we know if our local law enforcement would even have the capacity to provide that if the Board should choose to do so. That would be a much larger, much longer, much more conclusive conversation than just to make that happen immediately.”