COLUMBIA — Under a preliminary contract, Columbia Public Schools would pay more for school resource officers but would also have a greater say in evaluating them.
The group that drafted the proposed contract came together after an October incident at Hickman High School in which School Resource Officer Mark Brotemarkle was accused of using excessive force in breaking up a fight between students. A video of the incident was put on YouTube. After an investigation, Brotemarkle was cleared of all charges.
But the contract was revised mainly for financial reasons, according to Columbia Police Capt. Tom Dresner, and the need for a new contract was not a surprise to the school district. The board will vote on the new contract within the next several weeks as it finalizes the next budget, said Jan Mees, new president of the Columbia School Board. The board has yet to see the proposal.
"Last year, we knew the contract with the Police Department would (be ending) and we would have to pay a bigger share of the SRO (school resource officer)," board member Ines Segert said.
From 2 to 8
The previous contract from July 26, 2000, gave the school system 75 percent of the financial responsibility for the program, for a total of $66,300. At the time, the program consisted of two officers — one at Hickman and another at Rock Bridge High School.
Now, there are eight school resource officers: one each at Hickman and Rock Bridge and one in each of the district's three junior high and three middle schools. Funding for the additional officers came from the Police Department's budget.
"Over time we never asked for more money than what we were receiving for the original two," said Capt. Zim Schwartze. "As of last year, because our budget is so tight, we told the school board that 'We are going to have to ask that you pay for half the funds of the eight SROs.'"
Under the new proposal, the district would pay for 50 percent of the eight school resource officers — at an annual cost of $189,500, Dresner said.
The increase in cost comes as the school district faces a $3.2 million deficit for the coming school year. Still, there is money allocated in the budget for a cost increase in the resource officer program, Segert said. At a March 18 school board meeting, a PowerPoint presentation of district expenditures listed the cost of the program as $189,500, consistent with the proposed contract, according to Mees.
Opportunity to cut?
The school board's new vice president, Tom Rose, thinks it might be possible to reduce the program.
"We are at a level where we can look at whether we need as much coverage at the middle-school level," said Rose. "We’re looking at what we need to meet our budget, whether the greatest need is there or not, and if the staff in place is able to handle the disciplinary issues as is."
Former board Vice President Steve Calloway said the middle schools should receive as much consideration as funding allows. "Definitely the priority should be at the higher grades," he said.
The function of school officers varies at the different grade levels. "An SRO has a three-pronged approach," Schwartze said. "One prong is enforcement, one is to be an adviser, and the third is to be an educator — to make presentations and to educate the kids on the various aspects of law and life."
Schwartze said officers in the middle and junior high schools focus more of their job as adviser and educator. Enforcement plays a much larger role at the high school level. "In high school, we are talking about young adults. Those tend to rely on violence a little more quickly as opposed to working it out," Schwartze said.
School resource officers made 217 arrests and reports during the 2007-08 school year. The most arrests, 55, were at Oakland Junior High School. Though Columbia middle schools have seen a decrease in arrest and reports the past three years, Lange Middle School had the highest number of arrests in a year with 59 in the 2005-06 school year. These numbers do not include when other Columbia police officers make arrests in Columbia schools or when reports are made with no arrests.
Mees said she could not recall when the school board was supplied with school officer disciplinary data in Columbia schools since her election in 2007. Mees said via e-mail that "the board will be apprised of the number of incidents in schools, in relation to the decision to budget for the SROs. This will be important data which guides the decision to fund these positions."
The video posted of the incident at Hickman showed Brotemarkle slinging student Diamond Thrower to the ground as he pried apart the fighting students. Thrower was found to be only trying to break up the fight and later missed school for injuries to her neck and back. Hickman student Morgan Bruscher told the Missourian in November that instances like these are "basically like a bar fight," in which friends of the fighting students join the violence.
After Brotemarkle was cleared of wrongdoing, Ratliff, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Missouri organization and head of its Columbia branch, contacted the Community Relations Services department of the U.S. Department of Justice. The agency "attempts to help communities resolve conflicts or tension regarding race, color or national origin," said Ryan Breitenbach, a media representative for the agency.
Ratliff told the Missourian last November that "had (Thrower) been a young white female, the community would have been up in arms, demanding not just that Brotemarkle be reassigned, but dismissed."
Discussing the role
Bill Whitcomb, a conciliator for the Justice Department, assembled a group to talk about the role of school resource officers. The group included then-interim Police Chief Dresner, interim schools Superintendent Jim Ritter, Assistant Superintendent Wanda Brown, safety and security coordinator Preston Bass, Wynna Fay Elbert and Wanda Cason of the NAACP, Nathan Stephens, who is a social worker and current president of the Black Parents Association, and Ratliff, Brown said.
"The contract served as a discussion for the roles of the SROs (in schools)," Brown said. "The Department of Justice was concerned with the situation of the SRO at Hickman. We all agreed we couldn’t change the past but knew we could move forward."
In revising the contract, the group sought input from community members about what the role of the school resource officer should be, as well as how much say the schools would have in evaluating officers. At a principals' meeting after the Hickman incident, Brown gave principals the old contract and asked them to pass it around to get feedback from the community. She said she brought their input with her to the discussions.
In a series of eight meetings beginning Nov. 25, the group revised the former contract to have the school's evaluation of a school resource officer taken into consideration by the Police Department in its own annual performance evaluations. The previous contract stated the school's evaluation of an officer was "advisory only." The Police Department still retains the final authority on the removal of the officer, the document states.
Stephens was pleased with the proposed change. "CPS, at the time was paying a part of the salary for the resource officers but had literally no say-so in how the officers conducted themselves," Stephens said.
The group also proposed a revision allowing Columbia schools to provide diversity training for the officers, in addition to the diversity training officers receive annually from the Police Department. "We need to have a training component that helps orient the SROs to the school," Brown said.
"(Officer) training is to deal with murderers, bank robbers and rapists," Stephens said. "In a high school setting, there needs to be a modification or adjustment to your approaches."