GREENSBORO — Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras said she found it “somewhat shocking” that Greensboro city leaders would signal an end to the city’s partial subsidy of school resource officers without talking it over first with school district leaders.
“I wasn’t consulted; neither was the Board of Education or the board chair,” she said Friday.
Contreras said whether or not the community wants to have school resource officers in schools is a conversation worth having. But she also said she is concerned cutting them could lead to increased arrests of students, because it raises the possibility of more police officers unfamiliar with the students or schools responding to calls.
At a work session on Tuesday, Greensboro City Council members decided without a formal vote to inform the county that they are ending their subsidy of school resource officers in Greensboro schools. Guilford County Schools has school resource officers in its middle and high schools, with the city of Greensboro and the city of High Point providing police officers in their cities and Guilford County providing deputies in the county.
County and state dollars pay for the positions, however the city of Greensboro said it is spending about $500,000 per year in administrative costs, including supervisor positions to manage the Greensboro school resource officers.
In bringing up the idea, Councilwoman Michelle Kennedy talked about hearing “extreme concern about the school-to-prison pipeline” from constituents in the past couple weeks. The majority of the conversation among council members, however, revolved around the cost. City leaders said they are willing to have Greensboro officers participate in the program, but they do not want to pay for any of it.
The move by the City Council has opened an arena for arguments between city and county leaders about who should pay for what and who should consult whom.
And it comes at a time when some school districts are turning away from school resource officer programs in the midst of nationwide protests condemning racism and police misconduct.
The New York Times reported that Denver’s school board voted to cancel its contract with police on Thursday and that school districts in Seattle, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon also have promised to remove school resource officers.
Two Guilford County Schools students interviewed in downtown Greensboro on Friday said they think it is good to have school resource officers.
“If it were just principals or teachers enforcing the rules in the school, they couldn’t,” said Sindra Bundu, who was posing for photos in Center City Park before attending her drive-thru graduation from Dudley High School. School staff, she said, just doesn’t have the same authority as school resource officers.
“We see them; we feel safe,” she said.
Easaw Teklu, a rising junior at Grimsley High School, said that recent events in the United States raised the possibility that a school resource officer might treat black students unfairly. But he said that’s not something he’s seen at his school.
“It’s good because people get into fights and stuff,” he said. “I think the school resource officer can handle that.”
Lissa Harris, a local parent and education advocate, said her group — Parents Supporting Parents — has been calling for years for the removal of the officers from Guilford County Schools and some other North Carolina school districts. The group has raised concerns about rough treatment of students and arrests in situations that could have been handled without the use of law enforcement, she said.
One of the clients they’ve advocated for, she said, was a student, now in high school, who was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct at the age of 6.
Although Harris supports the goal of removing the officers from schools, she believes it’s also critical to first have a plan in place for that transition. She is concerned that having more officers coming in who are unfamiliar with the schools could be harmful to the students unless government leaders plan a way around that.
Some school resource officers, she said, have great reputations for building relationships with students, and she emphasized gratitude for them. At the same time, she said, law enforcement officers aren’t school counselors and shouldn’t be considered a reasonable substitute for counselor positions.
Harris said she’s been calling council members to share her concerns and to urge a larger conversation.
“There has to be some dialog with the school district,” she said.
Marc Ridgill, a retired Greensboro school resource officer and former Republican candidate for the Guilford County Board of Education, supports having school resource officers in the schools.
He said students react better to dealing with any officer they know. And when an officer is familiar with a student, that can help the officer with resolving a situation or with recruiting witnesses.
“The more information you know, the better you are with dealing with any person,” he said.
Ridgill said North Carolina law requires principals to report certain crimes immediately to law enforcement. Some Guilford County Schools, he said, could see police cars coming to the school two to four times per day if school resource officers were removed.
Having school resource officers in schools doesn’t mean that other police officers don’t come to the schools, just less often.
School Board member T. Dianne Bellamy-Small said she is interested in a different approach.
Since joining the school board in 2016, she said she has advocated for Guilford County Schools creating its own school security force.
The district could then integrate that staff directly into its intervention and prevention efforts and control what training the security staff received.
Bellamy-Small said that when she was a Greensboro police officer 40 years ago, she received one course on how to work with children.
“The course was called juvenile delinquents” she said. “That skews how you look at it.”
She personally prefers an unarmed security force to keep guns out of schools, but said that an armed school district security force, with proper training, could still be an improvement.
Other school districts across the country also are trying out this model, she said. Baltimore City Schools, for example, has its own Baltimore City School Police.
“I just think we could get more bang for our buck and do better for our children,” she said.