Ad-hoc committee finds contract with Madison police fraught with challenges

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Members of the ad-hoc committee tasked with evaluating the contract between the Madison Police Department and the Madison Metropolitan School District found a complex situation for which there was no obvious solution, according to committee members interviewed by Madison Commons.

(Elizabeth Janeczko/Madison Commons)

Nonetheless, the committee produced a list of recommended changes to the Educational Resource Officer contract that seek to address the problems of police presence in schools as comprehensively as possible, barring termination of the contract.

Although some committee members believed that terminating the contract with Madison police should be the district’s long-term goal, the committee did not recommend doing so immediately in its final report to the Board of Education last December.

“I was surprised how much [EROs] were built into the infrastructure of school functioning, and how much they were perceived [by staff] to be essential. And for me that raised concerns about a complete and abrupt removal,” said Abra Vigna, one of nine community members on the committee, which also included three MMSD school board members.

Vigna’s diagnosis has been echoed by other committee members in interviews and written statements. The preamble to the recommendations also acknowledges that given state law which requires school staff to communicate security threats to Madison police, the contract needs to remain in place for now.

Reducing negative impact of Madison police presence on students

However, Vigna made it clear that “the recommendations emphasize engaging in harm reduction, and do not simply recommend keeping the officers in schools.” Instead of terminating the contract, the proposed changes broadly strengthen the authority of the school district relative to the police department, a shift that has drawn criticism from Madison’s Chief of Police, Mike Koval.

Among the more assertive recommendations are measures that would “grant MMSD veto authority over the selection and assignment of EROs,” and “the authority to remove an ERO from their assignment for cause.”

Others measures seek “to ensure that clear lines of communication are in place so that the presence of [Madison police officers] will be less likely to escalate a potentially volatile situation,” and otherwise increase officer accountability, student agency, and program transparency.

Chief among the committee’s concerns has been the need to maintain a safe learning environment at Madison schools while ensuring that police presence does not continue to have a disproportionate negative impact on black and brown students, whom MPD data shows are cited and arrested more often than white students.

Debating the cops-in-schools question

According to Anna Moffit, the committee’s original chair, the motivation to form the committee stemmed from broader discussions about policing that were happening in the community and the country in 2016.

“[The] contract [with MPD] had been in place for about 18 years. And, although there may have been tweaks made here and there, there wasn’t any public discussion around the contract that I knew of,” she says.

Seeing that the contract was up for renewal in 2016, Moffit decided it warranted a closer look. The committee ultimately spent more than two years in research and deliberation, before delivering its report last December. During that time, the committee conducted dozens of interviews, heard testimony at numerous meetings, and reflected on what it had learned.

“I think everybody came with a really strong desire to study the issue, and make really well-researched and well-discussed recommendations to the Board of Education,” said Moffit.

Perspectives on the role of EROs in schools on the committee varied, but at the end of the process there was widespread agreement about the changes that would be likely to improve the program, according to Moffit and Vigna.

Moffit said two major recommendations were considered which ultimately did not make it onto the final list. The first of these was a proposal to change the uniforms EROs wore at schools from the traditional black uniform to something different, the idea being to make the officers appear less threatening. Ultimately that proposal was rejected.

“At the end of the day, the officer always had authority over the kids. So, whether they wear their black uniform or a khaki uniform, they still have all the authority to arrest and cite,” Moffit said.

The committee also considered terminating the contract completely, but ultimately decided that such an abrupt change to the security status quo at Madison high schools would leave the staff without an important safety resource for which there was no obvious replacement.

Is MMSD's contract with Madison police symptomatic of a bigger problem?

The district pays the Madison police department $377,000 per year for ERO salaries, which is about one third of its General Fund security expenditure. In addition, last year the board approved an additional $7 million for structural security upgrades in district buildings.

As Madison’s spring school board election draws closer, the debate over the ERO contract has become a point of contention among the candidates.

Vigna suggests that EROs are symptomatic of overarching problems of systemic racism and educational disparities in the district which will take a long time and a lot of thoughtful conversation to resolve.

“Due to intense polarization,” Vigna said, “some of the nuance [around EROs] has been lost.”

Whether continuation of the contract will help or hinder the district’s goals of creating a welcoming learning environment while ensuring the safety of all students—including vulnerable black and brown students—may hinge on the degree to which the district prioritizes the success of these students across all of its operations.

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