MILWAUKEE — The debate over school resource officers has resurfaced in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas mass shooting.
It’s been two years since Milwaukee Public Schools terminated its contract with the Milwaukee Police Department to stop paying specially trained police officers to patrol outside its buildings.
Although MPS hasn’t had school resource officers for the past two school years, Milwaukee police still respond for emergencies. This year alone, MPD data shows officers have been called nearly a thousand times just to MPS high schools. Some students say they think they’d be safer if officers were already stationed at their schools.
Let’s go ‘360’ to hear from all sides about whether police officers should return to MPS campuses. A teacher representing Black educators explains why she thinks students are better off without police at schools, and the Milwaukee police union shares why bringing back school resource officers would cut down on response times. But we start with two MPS students who are at odds about police assigned to schools.
“Do you think police officers should be inside schools to keep students safe?” reporter Ben Jordan asked.
“Yeah, because anybody could come and try to shoot up a school at any time and, you know, people wouldn’t want to wait for a police officer to get there when there could already be one there,” Alexandria Gamez responded.
Gamez is heading into her senior year at Marshall High School next fall. Milwaukee police say they’ve responded to 139 calls for service there this year alone. Gamez says she’s concerned about the potential of a school shooting, but she also thinks having police assigned to specific schools would help cut down on fights and reckless driving on school property.
“People tend to fight more without the police there,” she said. “People fight, hurt each other and then it takes police a while to get there and so it’s kind of inconvenient.”
The Wisconsin Professional Police Association recently surveyed more than a thousand people across the state asking whether school districts should have school resource officers. 63 percent said it would increase school safety, 5 percent said it would decrease safety and 25 percent said “neither”.
“I don’t believe that the police are that far away when they’re called up here,” said Angel Toombs. “When they’re called up here, like I said, they respond right away, like within a minute or so.”
Toombs just graduated from Rufus King High School. He says having police inside school buildings would make him feel uncomfortable.
“It wouldn’t make it feel like a school, it would make it feel like a prison,” he said.
Angela Harris is an MPS teacher, parent and the leader of the Black Educators Caucus in Milwaukee. The group led the push in June of 2020 after the police killing of George Floyd to have the district terminate its contract with MPD.
“Two years later, has your position changed?” Jordan asked Harris. “No, our position really remains the same,” she replied.
Milwaukee police records show officers have been called to MPS’ 13 high schools 971 times this school year. Before the pandemic started, in the 2018-’19 school year, there were 1,108 calls for service.
“Police officers service the community, right?” said Harris. “Schools are a part of the community and so teachers, school administrators, even the district has a right to call for that service.”
Harris believes the district already has the right safety precautions in place to prevent school shootings, including locked doors where visitors have to be buzzed in by the school secretary along with monthly code red drills in which students practice how to react to an intruder.
“What we’ve seen, mass shootings after mass shootings, particularly shootings that have happened at school buildings where there are school resource officers that are present at that moment and they’re not able to prevent the shootings then,” Harris said.
“You can try as much as you want to lock doors or to do the best you can with physical-type security, doors and locks, but those are all eventually bound to be tampered with,” said Milwaukee Police Association President Andrew Wagner.
Wagner says putting police back in schools would allow them to respond to critical incidents much more quickly.
“When you’re talking about kids and their safety and when lives are in danger, seconds and minutes matter and it’s those response times that would really diminish if we could get those officers back,” he said.
Wagner says school resource officers receive special training on deescalation techniques and how to effectively work with children. He believes having police at schools would help bridge the divide between police and the community by developing relationships with young people.
“Those officers were such a valuable asset there,” he said. “When you have officers outside of a school area, they don’t know what they’re walking into or what kids have what problems.”
MPS declined to do an interview on this topic. In a statement, a district spokesperson didn’t directly respond to our question about their stand on renewing the contract with Milwaukee police. Instead, they said, “The safety of everyone within Milwaukee Public Schools is paramount and we’re open to any and all options that help ensure a safe learning environment for students and staff.”