116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The city of Cedar Rapids has officially signed off on changes to the program employing police officers in Cedar Rapids schools after some students and community members pushed for the program to be modified to address racial disparities.
The Cedar Rapids City Council on Tuesday authorized the city manager and city clerk to execute an amended agreement between the city and Cedar Rapids Community School District to renew the school resource officer program for the July 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022 term.
The seven-member Cedar Rapids school board last month approved a number of changes to the program. Under the amended agreement, officers will not play a role in enforcing school rules or discipline, wear “soft” uniforms to be more approachable and must allow parents or guardians to be present if their children are questioned by officers in school.
Police Chief Wayne Jerman said he and others in the Police Department met with Superintendent Noreen Bush and deputy Superintendent Nicole Kooiker before that meeting to discuss the recommended changes.
“One thing that's important too when we did all this is to realize that we have a very good program, and when we got together with the schools it was to make our program even better,” said Capt. Brent Long, who oversees the Community Services division where the program is housed.
Whereas the original agreement primarily outlined the structure of the program and services involved, the amended agreement includes program goals.
“With the school, we now want to create an environment where all students feel safe and supported, we're going to instill (in) all students and staff … a sense of belonging, educate and teach students about appropriate behaviors and responses through restorative and trauma-informed lenses,” Long said.
The agreement also permanently removes full-time officers from McKinley and Roosevelt middle schools. Anticipating the change, the district removed them before the first day of school Aug. 23.
Instead, those two officers will now be available to all Cedar Rapids elementary and middle schools as an on-call resource and to provide instruction on active shooter training and lessons on civic engagement, according to the amended agreement.
Full-time school resource officers will stay at Kennedy, Jefferson, Washington and Metro high schools and Polk Alternative.
Program changes come as the district and Cedar Rapids Police Department set joint goals of reducing arrests and charges filed against all students by 50 percent or more, and of bringing a 50 percent or greater reduction in the disproportionality of arrests of Black students.
Recent Iowa Department of Human Rights data showed that Black students in Cedar Rapids schools were six times more likely to have allegations of criminal wrongdoing made against them than white students.
Less than 3 percent of all students were arrested by school resource officers over a four-year period. But Black students were arrested at higher rates than white students, though they make up 19.1 percent of the student population.
Under the agreement, officers will receive ongoing training in restorative disciplinary practices, intercultural development inventory, de-escalation strategies and other topics with Cedar Rapids school employees.
Long said the agreement also formalizes a diversion program, which the department has worked on for two years, where officers divert first-offense violations to the school district.
“We certainly believe that we’re not there to arrest, we’re there to teach and help,” Long said.
Mayor Brad Hart said he appreciated the police department’s flexibility and willingness to modify the program as “the good work’s already been done, but making the changes to better serve our students and our schools and the entire community.”
Council member Ashley Vanorny, who sits on the council’s Public Safety and Youth Services committee, said she thinks the council can help stave off some of the root causes that contribute to youth violence through continued investment in community services, affordable housing and other city programming.
“I see the work that you’re doing to support people and to try to teach and train and support them however they’re presenting,” Vanorny said. “I think so often what ends up happening is you end up being a Band-Aid solution for really unattended-to social determinants of health. That’s hard because there is no other option when people don’t have enough food don’t have enough shelter, don’t know where they’re next meal is going to come from, are not safe at home, and so a lot of these things end up in your laps.”
The officers, in collaboration with the district, will collect data on all referrals to law enforcement, including police calls, criminal charges and arrests in school-related incidents. This data will be gathered in a statistical report format and given to the district monthly.
Some school board members, when voting to approve the changes last month, indicated this data would be key to how the program moves forward.
“I think we should treat this as kind of a crisis moment for students in our schools,” school board member Dexter Merschbrock said during the Sept. 27 meeting, given the state data and school survey results the district has reviewed showing racial disparities in students’ perceptions of the program.
“We really have to be willing to act and change (the program), and if it comes to canceling the contract with the city, we should have to do that if the data doesn’t support the changes that we’ve made are making a difference,” Merschbrock added.
In response to Merschbrock’s comments, board President Nancy Humbles said “we as a board, we need to stay on top of it, what’s going on, because of the data.”
Asked by council member Scott Overland, who serves on the public safety committee, when a possible contract extension may next come to council, Long said that would come around May or June.
First, Long said the police department would take the information gathered in the coming months and ”keep evaluating any changes or different methods that we’d have to adapt to.”
Merschbrock in the Sept. 27 meeting also had asked about whether, during the police department and school district officials’ talks, there was any discussion about what the nature of the district’s relationship with the police department could be eventually “without us providing funding for SROs directly.”
Funding is limited, Merschbrock said, and while safety is important, money could go toward other services to promote those restorative practices.
“That will have to be part of the driving factor, is what’s the return on investment for student results?” Bush responded.
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