STOCK Verona Area High School March 2020

The student entrance to Verona Area High School.

A petition is circulating on Change.org urging the Verona Area Board of Education to end its Police-School Liaison Officer program at Verona Area High School.

The petition, started by a person self-identified as Lensa H, received 231 signatures as of the morning of Tuesday, June 30. It demands the school district cut ties with the City of Verona Police Department, arguing that having police in schools does more harm than justice.

“One of the pillars for our district is to have ‘safe, inclusive learning environments,’ but how have you accomplished that goal with having school police when a majority of your students don’t feel safe around them?” the petition reads.

Board president Noah Roberts wrote in a statement to the Press just before 5 p.m. Tuesday that the school board would be discussing the petition and the contract with Verona Police Department at a future meeting.

"We are committed to providing students with safe, inclusive learning environments," Roberts wrote in an email to the Press. "We believe everyone has a place in our schools -- that they should feel both valued and safe. VASD strives to provide learning environments that are culturally responsive, inclusive and have systems of support that ensure physical, emotional and social safety for all members of our school community."

The petition was started the day on Sunday, June 28, the day before the Madison Metropolitan Board of Education voted to end its SRO contract with the City of Madison Police Department. There has been a national call to remove police from schools for years, with Madison-based Freedom, Inc. urging MMSD to end the SRO program since at least 2012. That has accelerated after the death of Minneapolis man George Floyd during an arrest in May, which has led to protests across the nation.

The petition narrative states a majority of Black people losing their lives during police interactions are unarmed, resulting in trauma for Black students.

“Why is it that Black children are taught how to properly act around police when police should be learning how to safely communicate with citizens?” Lensa wrote in the petition narrative. “Every single time I see a cop, whether it’s in the school hallway or on the sidewalk, I make sure my hands are visible and there is nothing in my pockets that can be mistakenly thought of as a weapon.”

The petition quotes two unidentified students who state Verona officers “have never made a visible effort to create relationships with students” and instead only escalate situations, and that having officers around makes them feel uncomfortable. It also argued there is no need for police in schools to penalize students who misbehave when there are social workers there who are better at communicating.

The security guards at VAHS have done a better job at creating connections with students than the PSLO, Lensa wrote.

“Clearly, it can be seen how unnecessary school officers are because there are numerous staff members who already make this school environment safe,” she wrote.

During a presentation to the City of Verona Common Council in June, Verona police chief Bernie Coughlin told alders that while he thought ending the PSLO contract would be a mistake, he respected the board’s decision, and the department would treat the school district like any other business if assistance was requested.

According to statistics provided by Coughlin to the council in June, Black people made up 37.7% of the city’s 135 arrests in 2017, while only 3.1% of Verona’s population identifies as Black. The majority of the police department’s interactions with Black people are when they are in the age range of 15-19, while they are students at VAHS.

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.​