Board chair open to eliminating resource officers in Durham schools

Posted June 25, 2020 9:16 p.m. EDT

— Administrators said Thursday that they plan to review the role of school resource officers in Durham Public Schools in the coming months as the nationwide re-examination of policing has prompted a growing number of current and former students to press for the elimination of SROs.

Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said the district will conduct "a thoughtful impact assessment" of the SRO program during the coming school year. The district and the Durham County Sheriff's Office "made fundamental improvements in the relationship between schools and law enforcement" over the past year, he said.

"We are proud of our partnership with the sheriff's office to protect and support our students, staff and school communities," Mubenga said in a statement. "We also recognize that the national conversation about systemic racism and policing is important to the Durham community, and we are willing to participate in it."

The district has 22 SROs in local schools, nine in middle schools and 13 in nine high schools.

"We hope to continue working with [the district] to ensure the safety and security of all students and staff in our community’s public schools," the sheriff's office said in a statement.

Aissa Dearing, who graduated this spring from J.D. Clement Early College High School, which doesn't have an SRO, said the district's agreement with the sheriff's office needs to be terminated.

"It doesn’t make people feel safe when they are policed in a learning environment," Dearing said. "I’ve been in situations where teachers were trying to discipline me, but they called in an SRO just in case I tried to threaten them or tried to harm the teacher. It really felt like I was not a student anymore, that I could be treated as an adult who could be criminalized for normal teenage behaviors."

Mike Lee, chairman of the Durham County Board of Education, said he is open to alternatives to SROs in schools.

"The issue here is what do we do as a replacement," Lee said. "We understand the problem. As a Black man with three Black children in the school district, I understand the problem. However, I need to understand the solutions before we can go down the path of removing SROs from Durham Public Schools."

SROs serve a role to respond to threats at schools, including reports of weapons on campus, help break up fights and remove people who are trespassing and shouldn't be on school property, he said.

"In my opinion, I believe that student safety would be in jeopardy" without SROs, Lee said. "I am completely open to all and every viable alternative to SROs, as long as we can provide the level of safety and security for our students, staff, parents and administration."

Dearing and other students say the money spent on SROs could be allocated to more school nurses, counselors and other mental health professionals, who they said could respond to problems more effectively than a law enforcement officer.

"We can take more preventative measures. School shooters, statistically, are students that attended the school that had a history of mental health issues," Dearing said.

Lee said he isn't convinced that school counselors are the answer to dealing with a situation like an active shooter.

"I really want to understand the argument that school nurses and therapists and social workers and counselors could replace the SROs in our buildings," he said. "I really want to understand that. I don’t understand that argument at this moment."

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