FAYETTEVILLE — The City Council will again consider whether to add more armed police officers to the district’s public schools.
Council members on Tuesday will consider a proposal to add one new school resource officer, while also committing to adding two new officers annually until each school has a full-time officer on duty every school day.
The measure is sponsored by Councilmember Holly Hertzberg who said she wants to ensure the safety and security of students, faculty and staff, but also because she believes the local school district should follow the recommendations of the state’s school safety commission.
In a memo sent to the City Attorney’s office, Hertzberg mentioned the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas where an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers.
“As we were tragically reminded on May 24th, school violence is a prominent threat that needs to be taken seriously,” Hertzberg wrote. “The City of Fayetteville has a responsibility to ensure all possible measures are in place to prevent and defend against this type of evil.”
Hertzberg said Fayetteville is behind in meeting the best practices recently published in a report by the Arkansas School Safety Commission, which recommend that every school have an armed police presence at all times during classes or major extracurricular activities.
The city currently has six school resource officers assigned to the Fayetteville Public Schools district, which operates 15 campuses and next year will open a new middle school in west Fayetteville.
Hertzberg’s proposal would add one new officer this year, and would express the council’s intent to add two more officers each year beginning in 2023.
The city shares the cost of paying for school resource officers with the district. Adding a new officer this year would cost $40,000, according to a budget adjustment document included in the proposals’s agenda packet. The district would reimburse the city for $23,400 of the officer’s salary, and the city would pay the remaining $16,600.
It’s been two years since the council last considered adding new school resource officers.
The council in 2020 rejected a federal grant that would’ve helped hire two new officers. That proposal was first rejected on Aug. 4, 2020 and then again two weeks later.
During the first meeting, the council was split 4-4 on the vote and Mayor Lioneld Jordan broke the tie to accept the grant, but Councilmember Sarah Marsh rescinded her vote, causing the resolution to fail 3-5. Others joining Marsh included Sonia Harvey, Matthew Petty, Sloan Scroggin and Kyle Smith. Those in favor were Mark Kinion, Sarah Bunch and Teresa Turk.
Turk brought the discussion back to the council on Aug. 18, 2020 in what would be a nine-hour meeting where over 50 people spoke during the public comment period, both for and against the measure.
Some who spoke against were people of color who told stories of traumatic experiences they’d had with SROs, and described interactions they’d had with officers who they said targeted them, entrapped them, and made them feel uncomfortable or unwelcome in schools where the student population was mostly white.
Several school resource officers spoke in favor of the proposal, and described the 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.
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.
At the time, Councilemmber Harvey said there are plenty of instances where SROs should be praised for their work, but she was most affected by listening to those who spoke about their personal negative experiences. She said the city should pause its SRO program to allow more time to consider the idea.
Turk said she felt torn because while she heard many heartbreaking stories about systemic racism, she also listened to teachers and school officials who are people of color that were in favor of SROs. Turk said the second discussion was worthwhile, but eventually voted with the majority in a 7-1 decision to table the proposal indefinitely. Kinion was the only council member to vote against the tabling.
Councilmembers Harvey, Scroggin, Kinion, Bunch and Turk are still on the council. D’Andre Jones, Mike Wiederkehr, and Hertzberg were each elected since the 2020 votes.
The local nonprofit Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition last week made several social media posts about the effectiveness of adding armed police officers to schools. The advocacy group said residents should email council members and district officials and ask for evidence-based policy or at least pause the decision to allow for the vetting of other solutions.
The group shared a link to a study from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University which used school-level data from 2014 to 2018 to estimate the impacts of SRO placement.
“We find that SROs do effectively reduce some forms of violence in schools, but do not prevent school shootings or gun-related incidents,” according to the study. “We also find that SROs intensify the use of suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests of students.”
Hertzerg’s proposal is set to be discussed at the council’s next meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 16.