Worthington school board votes to discontinue SRO program

GARY SEMAN JR.
gseman@thisweeknews.com
Worthington Division of Police officer Sean Ord greets Thomas Worthington High School 2018-19 senior Noah Tennant on Aug. 16, 2018. The Worthington school board on July 27 voted 3-2 for a motion to keep the district's two full-time SROs from returning to the halls of Thomas Worthington and Worthington Kilbourne high schools, leading to a request to open dialogue regarding their future, according to Assistant Superintendent Randy Banks.

A Worthington Schools official said the cities of Worthington and Columbus are interested in initiating negotiations that would end contracts for the district’s two school-resource officers after a decision to eliminate the 2-year-old SRO program.

The school board on July 27 voted 3-2 for a motion to keep the full-time SROs from returning to the halls of Thomas Worthington and Worthington Kilbourne high schools, leading to a request to open dialogue regarding their future, said Assistant Superintendent Randy Banks.

The district had added the full-time SROs in 2018, with a Worthington Division of Police officer at Thomas Worthington because it is in Worthington city limits and a Columbus Division of Police officer at Worthington Kilbourne because it is in Columbus.

The school board on June 8 had discussed whether it was necessary to continue to employ SROs in the schools.

Because the two officers are under contract, the school district must work out an alternate agreement with the two jurisdictions to cease the relationship before the agreement expires, he said.

Otherwise, the district would have to continue to pay salaries for each officer – Worthington officer Sean Ord, for whom the district has paid $78,302 annually, and Columbus officer Steven Steenburgh, for whom the district has paid $111,365 annually, he said.

“The city and the district have a long history of working collaboratively to best serve the residents of Worthington,” Worthington law director Tom Lindsey said. “I am optimistic that this relationship and focus will allow us to resolve the SRO contract issues.”

Lindsey said he anticipated city and school district representatives would discuss the matter in the next couple weeks.

“However, it is likely that (Worthington City) Council approval will be necessary,” he said. “Therefore, I do not expect a final resolution of the matter until after City Council returns from summer recess.”

The Columbus Division of Police is aware of the school board's decision but the division has yet to receive the written notification of the board's action, which is required by the SRO contract, deputy police chief Jennifer Knight.

"I am going to submit an abolishment notice for the position," Knight said."That gives Steenburgh 70 days to find another position within the division."

The school board had suggested the two full-time officers remain outside in their vehicles during the school day, except when their presence was needed at the schools, while the contracts are in place.

“Obviously, having a police presence in the parking lot could have an impact on behavior,” Banks said. “It could have an impact either way. It certainly wasn’t the way the program was designed. We hope to come up with a resolution with the cities.”

Superintendent Trent Bowers recently announced the district would start the new academic year with remote learning when classes begin Aug. 31, but the officers were slated to be back on campus in August, regardless of remote-learning status, according to Banks.

Banks said his hope is the two officers would be reassigned by their police departments so they can continue their careers.

School board president Nikki Hudson was joined by Charlie Wilson and Amy Lloyd in the vote to end the SRO program; Jennifer Best and Sam Shim voted against the measure.

“I am disappointed a majority of the board decided to cancel our contracts with SROs without community discussion, not even having the motion on the published agenda,” Best, the board vice president, said. "Our high school leaders strongly recommend having SROs in our high schools.

“We have a new director of diversity, equity and inclusion who started Aug. 3. I would like to see her input and guidance in leading a group of students, staff and community members to further study the issue and make recommendations. It would have been good to do this before the vote, but even now I would like to move forward with community discussion and recommendation.”

Community members had varying reactions to the school board’s decision.

Brandy Ferris, who has elementary- and middle-school-aged children in the district, said Hudson handled the situation poorly.

The item should have been tabled, discussed with the community and possibly put up for districtwide vote, Ferris said.

“It wasn’t that I was outraged by the decision that was made – it was just the lack of a contingency plan and the manner in which it was brought to a vote,” she said.

Joely Tweel, who posted a comment to the message board on the district’s website, expressed opposition to the SROs.

“As a clinical social worker with a private practice in Clintonville, with personal and professional ties to Worthington, I am very concerned about the role that SROs play in the school to prison pipeline for students of color,” Tweel wrote. “I am also concerned about the traumatic effect that it may have on children of color to have police officers in their schools. School needs to be a place that is psychologically safe for children, for them to be able to focus and learn.”

Hudson said many students of color have relayed anecdotal information about abusive behaviors about the officers and would like to see them removed.

“The most egregious reports that I was made aware of include incidents where an SRO joked about police brutality, one where an SRO exhibited predator behavior toward a female student, and one where an SRO physically restrained a student and their peers without the direction or request of a faculty member,” she said.

During the meeting, which was available on a livestreamed broadcast, Hudson apologized to other board members who did not realize the issue was coming up so quickly and said a post she made on a social-media account had caused a backlash.

Hudson said on July 26, she had posted on her school district Facebook page that she was going to make a motion to cancel the district’s SRO program. It immediately had generated dozens of responses, both in support and against having the officers in schools.

The board’s decision followed the recent approval of a resolution that proclaimed Worthington Schools as an antiracist district and one with a commitment to social justice.

The district also hired Toya Spencer, a Black woman, to serve as director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

Spencer’s first day on the job was Aug. 3. Her annual salary will be $117,239, and her benefits contributions will be at least $12,896, though that could increase by up to $24,000 depending on the insurance options she selects, according to district spokeswoman Vicki Gnezda.

Hudson said the district had had plenty of discussion about the SROs in the two years since the program began, and most recently June 8 and July 27.

“We cannot be an antiracist school district and employ SROs, when there is a large body of research in evidence that SROs increase the criminalization of actions of students of color,” Hudson said. “The research also shows that SROs do not keep schools safe in the way that parents think they do.

“Striving to be antiracist requires more of us than just not being racist. It requires that we look at our policies and procedures and address them when they are inequitable.

“It requires us to repeatedly step back, repeatedly check our privilege, repeatedly ask whether we are supporting policies that reduce or increase racial inequities. To me, given the amount of research on this issue, it is a data-driven decision.”

gseman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekGary