Cedar Rapids police Officer Drew Tran has an open-door policy in his office — a converted storage closet between Jefferson High School’s administrative and counseling offices.
Several students stopped by one Thursday afternoon: one to show him a certificate he’d earned from the principal, another to grab a candy from Tran’s desk and another to ask for help rescheduling a job interview.
It took time for Tran to become a trusted mentor to many of the teenagers at the school on the city’s west side. Many, he said, at first saw him only as his uniform.
“I tell kids this every day … I don’t get dressed in the morning, look at myself in the mirror and say, ‘I’m going to go bust some kids,’” Tran, 39, said. “My motivation is I’m going to go help some kids. I’m going to go teach some kids to stay out of trouble.”
Nearly a decade since the Cedar Rapids Community School District and the Cedar Rapids Police Department started positioning officers in public high schools, the “school resource officers” have become integral — even beloved — members of the schools.
But while building relationships is the primary goal of Cedar Rapids’ School Resource Officer program, officers maintain the authority to issue citations and arrest students if necessary.
“SROs have made arrests, and the arrests are made when they feel it’s necessary to effect an arrest, but there are other avenues,” Cedar Rapids Police Chief Wayne Jerman said. “I know SROs explore other avenues outside of arresting a student for whatever the offense may be. Having an armed and sworn police officer in the school to effect arrests or to be used in disciplinary matters — is really a misconception.”
Since August, the start of this school year, about 180 police reports have been filed over incidents at Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area high schools, according to records obtained from police departments in Cedar Rapids, Marion, Iowa City, Mount Vernon, North Liberty and Hiawatha as well as the Linn County and Johnson County sheriffs’ offices.
About 90 percent of those reports were made at a high school with a school resource officer: Kennedy, Washington, Jefferson and Metro in the Cedar Rapids Community School District; Prairie High in the College Community district; Linn-Mar High and Marion High.
Police reports are coded as an arrest, law enforcement officials said, but typically they do not involve taking students into custody.
At Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids, Officer Charity Hansel has written some 60 reports this school year — the most of any school resource officer in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City metro areas. The statistic, she said, is an indication of her and the police department’s success in positively intervening in students’ lives. The bulk of citations at Kennedy are for disorderly conduct, which Hansel said she has issued for as little as squaring off in the hallway for a fight.
To avoid further legal action and maintain a clean record, students who are cited for disorderly conduct by Cedar Rapids school resource officers are able to complete a diversionary writing assignment. Most are one-time offenders, Hansel said.
“We run a little bit tighter ship because we can. ... Every school has a different dynamic,” she said. “We try to be consistent, but the reality is we have completely different stats and we have completely different kids. I have what I would think is the least amount of criminal issues and violent issues.”
Parents worry as Iowa City reconsiders
Civil liberties groups and some parents in Iowa have raised concerns about officers’ presence in schools.
On Thursday in the Waterloo Community School District, a video was posted online of an altercation between a school resource officer and a student.
A cellphone video captured a school resource officer, two other adults and a 16-year-old student on the ground. The student, according to reporting from the Waterloo Courier, resisted while being led out of West High’s cafeteria.
The student was restrained on the ground, the video shows, when the officer struck him in the face twice before placing him in handcuffs.
WATERLOO - A 16-year-old was charged after he allegedly fought with a police officer who was attempting to escort him from the West High School cafeteria following a disturbance.Continue Reading
The video surfaced days before the Iowa City Community School Board plans to consider at its 6 p.m. Tuesday meeting placing school resource officers in all of its secondary schools.
It’s a proposal that concerns Tammy Nyden, the mother of a 16-year-old boy diagnosed with autism, bipolar disorder and Tourette syndrome.
She started home schooling last year out of fear he would be “brought into the school-to-prison pipeline” in public school, she said.
“I’m terrified of having police officers there because I know my son and other kids like him who are never violent at home or in the community, but in the school environment become violent,” Nyden said. “Because you have people who don’t understand, who get in their face, and keep pushing, pushing, pushing.”
Having an officer in schools also troubles LaTasha DeLoach, a mother and former school board member. Children of color already are disproportionately disciplined compared with white Iowa City students, she said.
“Children feel like they’re under surveillance when they have to live under that type of pressure,” said DeLoach. “If this is all about keeping white kids safe, then we’re doing a really great job. This is the way to go. If this is about keeping all our kids safe and feeling like school is a refuge, ... then we’re going backward.”
There are systematic issues, added Iowa City parent Sara Barron, that come with school resource programs.
“It’s a mistake to frame this issue as a referendum about whether or not some police officers are good people,” she said. “l have worked closely with many officers throughout Johnson County, I know they want to do great work and many of them are concerned about youth in our community. The issue isn’t whether or not an individual officer is a good person. The question is, as a system, how do we invest our resources and what outcomes are we trying to achieve for our students?”
A report from the American Civil Liberties Union published last month found many U.S. schools are investing in police officers at the expense of mental health professionals, and that students of color are more likely than their white peers to be arrested at school.
In Iowa, the report found, black girls are more than eight times more likely than white girls to be arrested at school, one of the highest rates in the nation.
“Schools are different these days,” said Iowa American Civil Liberties Union Communications Director Veronica Lorson Fowler. “Something years ago that would have been disciplined at school, now there are school resource officers and security guards where something that might have been dealt with internally is turned over.”
‘Personality is a key piece’ for the job
Despite concerns in neighboring districts, the Cedar Rapids district and Cedar Rapids Police Department continue to have a strong relationship and mutual support for their program. They evenly split costs for school resource officers, Chief Jerman said.
On the district’s part, especially as arrests at Washington High School have doubled this school year over last, staff are cognizant some families have had negative past experiences with police and school staff alike, Associate Superintendent Noreen Bush said.
“We have to help create a different narrative for those experiences, which takes a lot of intentionality, a lot of proactive conversations and a lot of support,” Bush said. “ … We have to try and say, I know that’s what you’ve experienced, but we’re going to try and create a different narrative for your child.”
Not every police officer has the makings of being a school resource officer, Jerman said. All of his officers in schools are veteran officers who go through an application process to be placed.
“I think all of our SROs are tremendous SROs,” he said, “as well as great cops to boot.”
Jamie Cummins, a guidance counselor who works closely with Tran to address student issues, said the officers she has worked with at Jefferson have added value to the school’s community.
“Personality is a key piece of that SRO role, and maybe there are some officers who wouldn’t be as effective as Officer Tran is,” she said. “But to watch him interact with kids, no one could ever second-guess his intentions or that his approach isn’t with the students’ best interest in mind.”
For Tran, who became Jefferson’s officer two years ago after more than a decade with the department, every day is relationship building.
“It’s the interactions. It’s me,” Tran said, after escorting a late student to class one afternoon. “Simple things like that, sitting down with them at lunch, having that open-door policy.”
Students come to him with personal issues and he’ll trade stories. One student, Tran said, said she decided to get sober after he told her about a family member’s struggle with drug addiction.
“I’ve had these conversations with parents who are concerned: I’m not here looking to get your kids in trouble,” he said. “My role is to keep them out of trouble, I’m here to help support them. It’s a very unique role and it’s been so rewarding — I hope that they see it that way, too.”
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