After hearing often emotional testimony Monday night, the Oregon school board unanimously rejected the Village of Oregon’s version of an agreement to continue allowing a police presence at the high school.
The contract the village approved a week earlier would, among other things, allow an assault rifle to be kept at Oregon High School for the School Resource Officer. It also put a Dec. 30 cap on the deal so a committee could discuss key issues dividing the district and police department.
While the contract is being worked out, the designated officer won’t be on campus, but district superintendent Brian Busler said the district has temporary “alternatives,” including hiring a retired police officer or security guard.
He said a timeframe of three or four weeks would be possible for a group of village and district officials to come to a new agreement and iron out the “competing approaches to make the district as safe as it can be.”
School board president Steve Zach said the district will continue working “at all due speed” with the village to come to terms on an agreement “if one can be reached.”
Ultimately, the disagreement stems from the board’s interest in ensuring that the officer assigned to the campus is there to build relationships and maintain a culture of cooperation with authorities, rather than simply providing security.
In addition to the question of guns, which drew lengthy debate, there was also concern from the school board and staff that the language of the agreement approved by the village did not adequately address the expectations of the position.
District legal counsel Jina Jonen, who recommended the board not approve the village proposal, said in past years, a committee comprising Oregon police and OSD officials had “a very lengthy discussion of the paragraphs in the current agreements,” with compromises reached between the two groups on language.
“We took a long time to talk about that and manage everyone’s expectations and lay out an agreement we could all live with,” she said. “Are there more things to talk about? Absolutely. That was an ongoing process annually that we would meet and talk about this.”
About a dozen people signed up to speak, all expressing reservations about contract language that would allow the SRO access to an assault rifle at OHS and would allow the officer to interrogate or interview students ages 14 and older without the presence of parents or legal guardians.
Nathan Johnson, speaking on behalf of the Oregon Education Association board of directors, said the group “strongly opposes” having a rifle at the SRO’s office in OHS.
“We share the goal of safe, secure learning environment, but we disagree with village’s position that placing a semi automatic rifle within the high school makes it a safe learning environment,” he said. “School safety starts with the culture of climate we create in our buildings. Presence of a weapon of this type will undercut the very type of values we are trying to foster.”
In a post Tuesday afternoon on the Oregon Police Department’s Facebook page, chief Brian Uhl accused Oregon school board members of not being willing to hold “meaningful discussions” about the SRO agreement. He said the village had requested meetings about the agreement and the district rejected them.
Tuesday morning, Busler wrote a letter to district parents and guardians informing them of the latest developments on the SRO discussion.
He said the district and village have “long partnered” for an SRO to be present in OSD schools, and a few years ago, a committee of school administrators and OPD officers worked to put together an agreement for an SRO based on recommendations by the Wisconsin Department of Justice and the Department of Public Instruction.
The committee reviews and revises this agreement each year, including this year, as work between the sides continues, and Busler said he’s “optimistic an agreement will be reached soon.”
“In the meantime, you can be assured that on Sept. 3, a police officer/security professional will be at Oregon High School and available to serve all of our schools in addition to the local law enforcement provided by the Villages of Brooklyn and Oregon,” he wrote.
Culture vs. security
When the district first hired an SRO, Zach said, the vision was to “have another presence here to build a relationship with our students who happened to be a law enforcement officer.”
“Now the world has changed since then, and I’m not blind to that,” he said. “Knowing that causes us at points in time to reflect where that balance is between needing that relationship building and at some point in time, law enforcement presence.”
Zach said from talking with people in the district, having a weapon like an AR-15 in a vault in the high school “impacts the culture.”
“It has an effect, and we’ve heard that tonight; we heard that from their teachers,” he said. “Tonight, the universal voice was opposed to that, and that was consistent with what I heard around the community.”
Board member Troy Pankratz said the No. 1 goal for the SRO should be “building relationships with students in the district.”
“I don’t believe an SRO should be spending a majority of their time in an office near a gun safe,” he said.
Zach said if there is a shooting in the high school, he questioned how effective the response would be from an SRO who might need to return to their office to grab the AR-15.
“They would have to come from somewhere else in the building, down to the office open the door, open the vault … and then go back to where the shooting is. As I understand, the SRO has an AR-15 parked in their car — how big a deal is it to go from here to there and back?
School board member Tim LeBrun said he was initially concerned this was an “anti-gun” move by the board, but after doing some research, he agreed with their position.
“I went out, frankly, to find evidence that maybe this was an effective way to respond to an active shooter in our schools,” he said. “I couldn’t find any evidence. And as I talked to more people and learned about their perspective and the research they did … having a weapon like that in our school, it just doesn’t make any impact at all, and furthermore it makes a negative impact on the environment.”
LeBrun said while he “absolutely supports law enforcement in this town, it is different in school.”
“I did look into many different perspectives and having a gun in our school is not the way to do it,” he said. “Period.”
A ‘school official’
Just as important to district officials was the question of whether the SRO’s role as an educator would be reduced.
Jonen said she started her research by looking at the DOJ and DPI’s best practices guide and model SRO agreement. She said the SRO program is “really unique under the law” as it balances that person’s presence as both a law enforcement officer but also an “education school official.”
“The goal is to really have another trusted professional in the building to build a relationship with students, with the key being prevention,” she said. “We can share things with the SRO that would be otherwise protected under law that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to share, with the goal of keeping school safety and helping SRO build relationships with the students.”
Jonen said “looking at agreement from village from a legal lens,” she had several concerns.
“First, it didn’t really talk about the foundation of the SRO program or the relationship building components for the SRO,” she said. “That’s a critical factor of the SRO.”
She said the agreement also failed to designate the SRO as a “local school official,” which she called a “critical designation.”
“Without that designation, we can’t share anything with the SRO we can’t share with other law enforcement,” she said. “In essence … we would have an Oregon police officer with an office in our school, but we lose all value of having an SRO as another trusted professional to help build those relationships with students.”
Jonen said she was also concerned that there was no provision for additional training, when the district has asked the SRO to undergo nonviolent crisis intervention training “as many of our staff members do, along with additional training targeted for school resource officers.”
“We value very much the law enforcement training our SRO brings to our district, but we want to make sure were helping develop the SRO as an educational staff member,” she said.