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

Phillip Sitter
Ames Tribune

An Ames Police Department resource officer has been removed from Ames High School, and the immediate fallout for the school district is the hiring of additional staff.

According to a joint news release from the police department and school district posted Friday, the district requested that the school resource officer be removed and the city manager supported that request.

Police department spokesperson Cmdr. Jason Tuttle confirmed Monday that the school resource officer was Don Johnsen, who began working with the Ames district in the fall of 2019.

Johnsen is still employed with the police department, Tuttle said. When asked whether the department has taken any disciplinary action against Johnsen, Tuttle said, "We cannot discuss personnel issues."

The move was the result of the officer's alleged repeating of a racial slur against Black people.

According to the news release, Johnsen had recently reported to the high school with a police intern. When they arrived together, a high school student called out to the intern using the racial slur. The officer then questioned the student for using the word, and in doing so repeated the slur. 

The Ames Community School District.

Later that day, other students asked the officer about the interaction and accused him of calling the student the slur. Johnsen clarified he had asked the student to not use the slur, but he had repeated it.

More:Ames High School's new interim principal approved, with a start date of later this week

Johnsen realized "his choice of words was unacceptable," and he should not have repeated the slur even when questioning others' use of it, according to the release.

The officer met with the students involved, a mediator and a school administrator and apologized for using the word, but after reviewing the situation, the district's superintendent determined that the officer's "credibility with some students has been compromised, and he may not be as effective in his position."

"We understand and support the superintendent's decision," Tuttle said.

Tuttle said the decision "was the result of this specific situation," rather than a broader policy regarding officers' conduct and language.

The department stated in Friday's release that it "does not have the immediate capacity to replace this officer." While the school district does want to continue its partnership with the city, "The School District and City are working together to review the partnership agreement which funds the School Resource Officer positions and to consider whether or not there are shared goals."

More:Here's what we know about the status — and future — of Ames' school resource officers

The district is continuing to use a study group to come up with a recommendation about the future use of school resource officers beyond the current school year — despite initial plans to have a recommendation before the school year began.

Resource officers have been working out of Ames school buildings this year, despite an announcement in the spring that the officers would be stationed out of the district's central office and only work in school buildings as needed.

District spokesperson Eric Smidt previously told the Ames Tribune this fall that, "As the city and district continued to have conversations and work together this summer, it was determined that SROs should continue to be in our buildings for this school year."

In the short term, in the absence of a school resource officer at the high school, the district has added an additional assistant principal at the school and is reinstating campus monitors at the middle and high schools.

More:Ames High School names interim principal after Valerie Nyberg was reassigned

The Ames school board last week approved the appointment of the assistant principal, Steve Westerberg, giving the high school three assistant principals.

The new assistant principal was listed as an interim full-time position with a salary of more than $72,900. 

According to a posting for a middle school campus monitor on an external job applicant website, the monitor would be under the supervision of Ames Middle School's principal and other school administrators, and would be responsible for "monitoring and supporting" students in hallways, during lunch and before or after school, "to ensure a safe, secure and comfortable environment conducive to student interaction and learning."

Those duties would include intervening in conflicts between students, completing incident reports as needed, assisting law enforcement upon request and administering first aid as needed, according to the posting.

The posting added that the position's pay would be $19.15 per hour.

Smidt confirmed the pay rate and added that they are 40-hour per week positions. He said there are four campus monitor positions in total — three at the high school and one at the middle school — and all have been filled and are currently in the onboarding process.

He added that the money for the campus monitors and new assistant principal is from general fund expenditures — money used to pay for salaries, benefits, supplies and other miscellaneous costs.

The district added in its joint news release with the police department that "the process of this current transition was not smooth, and we will attempt to work with the City to design a partnership that meets the goals of the Ames CSD and the City of Ames."

Ames Tribune reporter Isabella Rosario contributed to this story.

Phillip Sitter covers education for the Ames Tribune, including Iowa State University and PreK-12 schools in Ames and elsewhere in Story County. Phillip can be reached via email at psitter@gannett.com. He is on Twitter @pslifeisabeauty.