After the recent social unrest that has swept across the country in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police officers, the Worthington school board on June 8 discussed whether it was necessary to employ school-resource officers.
The issue prompted several messages to the board, mostly in support of keeping the SRO at Thomas Worthington High School, whose contract was discussed.
For the 2020-21 school year, Worthington Division of Police officer Sean Ord will be posted at Thomas Worthington because the district’s contract for him had renewed automatically, according to Assistant Superintendent Randy Banks.
Because a contract for the Columbus Division of Police SRO at Worthington Kilbourne High School goes through 2021, he still is in place, too, according to Banks.
Worthington City Council had approved Ord’s contract by request of the school district. Unless one of the two parties would vote to rescind the contract, it must do so six months in advance of its renewal date, said Anne Brown, a spokesperson for the city of Worthington.
The consideration of the position came as some people across the country have been scrutinizing law-enforcement agencies for what they see as a system that supports racism and police brutality. The issue was sparked by a video recording showing Floyd’s death, which involved Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for almost nine minutes after an arrest.
The school board took up the discussion June 8, but did not vote on the matter. It is not clear whether the topic would be brought up at the board’s Monday, June 22, meeting but it likely will be revisited this summer, Banks said June 11.
According to feedback from the community included as comments in the meeting documents, many students and residents offered their support for the district’s two full-time SROs: Ord at Thomas Worthington and Columbus officer Steven Steenburgh at Worthington Kilbourne.
“Our family has had children attend Worthington Schools for the past 26 years consecutively,” Melissa Winesburg wrote to the board. “During this time, when officers have been in the school, our children have said that it makes them feel safer.”
But others said the presence of police is unsettling, and the school district should spend its financial resources elsewhere.
“While research on police in schools does not show their presence makes schools safer, it does suggest police can make students more fearful,” David Niven wrote.
Board member Sam Shim, a self-described supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, said he saw advantages with the SROs.
For example, he asked, if a fight breaks out between two teenagers, what level of involvement should teachers have in breaking it up?
Shim suggested surveying students to see how they feel about the SRO in their school buildings.
The district added full-time SROs in 2018, with a Worthington officer at Thomas Worthington because it is in Worthington city limits, and a Columbus officer at Worthington Kilbourne because it is in Columbus city limits.
Banks said before the 2018-19 school year, one Worthington officer had had a part-time presence approved by the city of Worthington.
The position was designed to assist the Thomas Worthington building as needed, Banks said. Additional officers were assigned to connect with middle schools and elementary schools in Worthington’s borders, he said.
Because some district buildings are in Columbus, Columbus police were called on for support when needed, especially during large activities, Banks said.
In 2018, the Worthington school board entered into an agreement with the Columbus and Worthington police divisions for one full-time officer at each high school, Banks said.
“It’s important to know that this decision was not taken lightly, and the district is committed to keeping students and staff safe while building a healthy relationship with law enforcement,” Banks said.
He said officers are trained in specific techniques, such as how to deescalate tense moments among students.
“The other thing that I think is important to note is that our agreements clearly define the roles of an SRO,” Banks said. “They are to serve as a liaison between the district and police department and to provide positive law-enforcement presence by building collaborative relationships.
“They are not there to perform administrative tasks.”
For the 2019-20 school year, the district paid $78,302 for the Thomas Worthington SRO and $111,365 for the Kilbourne SRO, Banks told ThisWeek in August.
The district’s compensation for the Kilbourne SRO for the 2020-21 school year will be $115,159, according to district spokeswoman Vicki Gnezda. The figure listed in a worksheet Banks and Gnezda sent ThisWeek to show the Thomas Worthington compensation was the figure as the previous year.