Ames school board votes to end its school resource officer program next school year

Isabella Rosario
Ames Tribune

Starting next fall, Ames police officers will no longer regularly patrol the city's middle school and high school.

The Ames school board voted unanimously Monday night to end its school resource officer program for the 2022-23 school year, following years of intense community discussion over how the presence of police impacts students.

It was the joint recommendation of interim Superintendent Paula Vincent and City Manager Steve Schainker to discontinue the agreement between the Ames school district and the city.

"I don't know how you overcome the experiences of some members of our community without taking a stand," Vincent said.

Schainker and Ames Police Chief Geoff Huff are both interested in finding ways to provide a secure learning environment without a uniformed officer, Vincent said. City officials have considered adding more campus monitor positions, increasing safety training for staff and implementing an anonymous tip line for the Ames school district.

The original intent of the school resource officer program was for police to build relationships with students, Vincent said. But as Ames schools have dealt with more fights and student behavioral issues this year, administrators have increasingly called on officers to get involved in those situations. 

Related: Ames school officials acknowledge fights have been a problem this fall, especially at the high school

Board member Allen Bierbaum said he learned during discussions with police that school resource officers are not there to provide security.

"They will only get involved if they're asked by the principal, but they don't want to be," Bierbaum said.

Bierbaum said that while school resource officers have not been a solution to violence at the high school, the board must acknowledge that some community members view them that way — even if that's not how the officers themselves think about their jobs. 

Board member Alisa Frandsen expressed a similar concern and asked how the board could commit to instilling a sense of safety among students, staff and families.

"How do we hold our feet to the fire on this?" Frandsen asked. 

Board member Kelly Winfrey said, "I think we just have to decide to do it."

"I am concerned that because it makes some people feel good to have SROs, that we won't do the action that is necessary so that we can move forward into something that could be more effective," Winfrey said.

Board member Sabrina Shields-Cook suggested continually putting school safety as a topic on the board's meeting agendas.

The city of Ames and the school district currently split the cost of the school resource officer program during the nine-month school year, with the city being responsible for compensation during the summer months. The total cost of officer pay, equipment, vehicles and training amounts to $241,512 per year, with the city paying $150,945 and the school district paying $90,567.

A school resource officer position has existed in Ames schools since 1995, previously funded in part by a COPS MORE grant under the 1994 crime bill. 

Decision comes on the heels of two incidents

Students, parents and other community members spoke for more than an hour during public comment periods in favor and in opposition of the removal of police from Ames schools.

People who wanted the school resource officer program to continue said having police at school makes students feel safer. Those who agreed with the board's decision cited the district's own data showing Ames officers have disproportionately more interactions with Black students than white students.

An Ames Tribune analysis previously found that while Black students comprise 10% of the district's current population, 43% of students charged by police during the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years were Black.

Ames High School student David Lee spoke Monday representing Students Advocating for Civil Rights Education.

Lee criticized an officer who was removed from Ames High School last month after he repeated the N-word while questioning a student. He also said an administrator tried to de-escalate the situation "by saying students of color are acting way out of proportion."

More: Ames police resource officer removed from high school after alleged racial slur

"All we want is an environment where students of color do not have to come to complain at SACRE meetings every single week to express their experiences of racism," Lee said.

According to a joint statement from the police department and school district, the officer was at Ames High School with a police intern when a student allegedly said the N-word.

The officer was Don Johnsen, who began working with the Ames district in the fall of 2019, police spokesperson Cmdr. Jason Tuttle previously confirmed to the Ames Tribune. Johnsen is still employed with the city's police department.

"In questioning the Ames High student for using the N-word towards the intern, the SRO repeated the word," the statement said. "The SRO realized his choice of words was unacceptable and (he) should not have said the N-word even when questioning others for using the word."

Ames High senior Kenaiya James said she is not against having police in schools.

"But I think we need to recognize the disadvantages of having an SRO in school, and how it disproportionately affects Black students or minorities in school," James said. "There are ways to hire these SROs and make sure they are there to actually build a relationship with the students, rather than hurt them.

Some parents speaking in favor of keeping the school resource officer program talked about their fear last week, when rumors of a violent threat caused panic at Ames High School. Police found the rumors were unsubstantiated.

Jen Peterson said she attended the meeting because of a text she received from her son at 11:11 a.m. last Thursday.

"This text to me said, 'I'm not trying to worry you, but do you know what's going on at the high school?'" Peterson said. "I know that SROs will not solve all our issues ... but I'd like to believe that (since) they're in the building, they can respond quicker."

Previously: Rumors of violent threat at Ames High School are unfounded, police say

Jim Madson, the father of an Ames High senior, did not address the school resource officer program during his comments. But he echoed other parents' concerns about the Thursday incident, saying that "at no time was there given any guidance to the parents or the students about what steps were being taken to ensure the students' safety."

"Equity and accountability must go together," Madson said.

Before voting to end the school resource officer program next school year, board member Amy Erica Smith said the district must better communicate with parents during incidents like last Thursday's.

"When students are crying or screaming in the lunchroom out of fear, that's a real thing that we need to take seriously. Even if it is just a rumor, it's a rumor that can be traumatizing in itself," Smith said.

Isabella Rosario is a public safety reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at irosario@gannett.com or on Twitter at @irosarioc.