Fayetteville council effectively rejects school resource officer grant

Holt Middle School / Google Maps

Fayetteville City Council members have effectively rejected a federal grant that would’ve helped the Fayetteville School District hire two school resource officers.

A decision to table the proposal indefinitely was made just before 2:30 a.m. Wednesday after a nine-hour City Council meeting that included listening to public comment from at least 50 people.

Like all items that are tabled indefinitely, it will expire at the end of the year unless it’s brought back to the table for further discussion. But since the grant deadline is Thursday, Aug. 20, the council’s action was essentially the same as an outright rejection.

The district earlier this year requested the two new SROs for its middle schools. The grant would’ve provided $250,000 of the $562,710 needed to hire the officers. The district had agreed pay the full remainder of the money needed, with no money coming from the city.

The issue was first discussed on Aug. 4 with a proposal to split the remaining funds needed between the city and school district. It was also amended to require that the SROs be licensed in social work if allowed by state law. That proposal failed 3-5.

Council Member Teresa Turk, however, introduced a new measure to discuss the grant again at Tuesday’s meeting. That move was met with opposition from the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition who argued that the council, by its own rules, cannot reconsider a failed measure without unanimous consent from the full council. The coalition even filed a lawsuit last week seeking an emergency injunction to stop the discussion from happening.

City Attorney Kit Williams disagreed, and said since Turk’s new measure required no funding from the city and had no minimum employment standards, it was effectively a brand new item that could indeed be discussed as new business.

The coalition argued that the new motion was “an end-around of the democratic process,” but Judge John Threet denied the request for an injunction shortly before Tuesday’s meeting.

In the lawsuit, the coalition said that there are systemic problems within the school district related to SROs and their interactions with students who are non-white, low-income, or who have special needs.

The lawsuit also argued that SROs are a poor fix for school safety.

“Instead of protecting students, SROs change a school from a social and educational environment into a surveillance zone. This change is a root cause of the school-to-prison-pipeline. When schools introduce SROs, students are more likely to be arrested, suspended, or expelled. This system perpetuates poverty, low-education rates, and often affects students and families in our poorest and most marginalized communities.”

During the meeting, several school resource officers spoke in favor of the proposal, and described their day-to-day tasks and talked about relationships they’ve built with troubled students and children who’ve come to them with problems that they said they didn’t feel like they could take to anyone else.

Fayetteville School District Superintendent Dr. John L. Colbert also spoke in favor, as did school board president Nika Waitsman who said blocking funding for SROs is not the appropriate way to address some of the systemic issues that many people are concerned about.

Jay Dostal, principal of Fayetteville High School, said he lost a close colleague to a school shooting and said he can’t imagine not having a police presence in schools in the current times.

NWA NAACP President Monique Jones was one of nearly 30 people who spoke against the proposal. Jones told stories about her children’s interactions with SROs. She said her son was charged with a felony after an SRO responded to an incident when he tried to defend himself against a bully, and that it has since had a continuing negative effect on his life. In another situation when her daughter broke a rule at a school without SROs, she was able to correct the situation herself as a parent without fear of her daughter being charged with a crime.

Many other people of color told stories of traumatic experiences they’d had with SROs, some who became emotional describing their interactions with officers who they said had targeted them, entrapped them, and made them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in schools where the student population was mostly white.

Council Member Sloan Scroggin said he appreciated the stories from SROs who had clearly provided value to the students they’d tried to help, but he said most of those instances could’ve been handled by a counselor, social worker or at least someone that did not carry a gun.

Council Member Sonia Gutierrez agreed, and said while there are plenty of instances where SROs should be praised for their work, she was most affected by listening to those who spoke about their personal negative experiences, and said the city should pause its SRO program for now to at least consider some of the injustices described.

Council Member Petty said even though he has been against the SRO proposal since voting against it at the last meeting, Tuesday night’s discussion was still a wake-up call for him. He said it reminded him of sitting through hours of stories about discrimination during the city’s civil rights ordinance debate. He said while he also appreciates the positive experiences he’s heard about SROs, he cannot ignore all of the negative experiences, and he agrees with Gutierrez that the program needs a pause.

Turk said she thought the discussion was worthwhile. She said she felt torn because she heard a lot of heartbreaking stories about systemic racism, but on the other hand, the teachers and school officials – some who are people of color – were all in favor of SROs. Still, she said she’d like to withdraw her proposal and asked City Attorney Williams if that was an appropriate way to kill the measure. Williams said the item couldn’t technically be withdrawn, but it could be tabled indefinitely which is basically the same thing. Turk agreed, and the vote to table indefinitely passed 7-1 with Council Member Kinion voting against.