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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

South Bend community advocates against police officers in schools

At the Sept. 20 meeting of the South Bend Community Schools Corporation (SBCSC), the school board discussed a drive-in movie at Washington High School, districtwide professional learning and a dual language immersion grant.

Not on the agenda, however — the presence of armed police officers in South Bend schools, also known as school resource officers (SROs). Because of a 2012 contract between the St. Joseph County Police and South Bend Police Department, there are four officers in South Bend schools. 

The district annually spends approximately half a million dollars on that contract, advocates say. The police allege differently, saying in a press release that the “average split-reimbursement for our SRO’s has been between $290,000-$330,000 when we had six SROs in the schools, we now have only four,” and that SBCSC only pays half. 

Advocates and community members who had assembled to speak on that issue got their chance to talk an hour and five minutes in, when the Board heard comments from the public on items that weren’t on the agenda.

“It was definitely a little tense,” Noemi Toroczkai said. “But it was tense for a good reason.”

Toroczkai, a Fulbright Scholar from Granger currently working as a Fulbright application advisor at Notre Dame, was there along with groups such as the South Bend NAACP, the South Bend chapter of Black Lives Matter and the Michiana Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

As an anthropology student at the University, Toroczkai grew interested in the racial problems in South Bend schools, hearing anecdotes and experiences in the 2020 summer protests following the police killing of George Floyd.

For advocates seeking to have the SBSC discontinue their contract with the police departments, the issue of armed officers in schools is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Indiana University South Bend (IUSB) labor studies professor Paul Mishler.

Mishler, whose department at IUSB is a sister department to the Higgins Labor Program at Notre Dame, has been an activist since the Vietnam War era. He helped organize the coordinated presence at the school board meeting, and subsequent protests on the issue.

To Mishler, police presence has problems outside of just school campuses.

“Part of the experience of black people in America is the police as an occupying force in their communities,” he said.

Advocates like Mishler argue that SROs came into existence in places such as South Bend following desegregation efforts, as white families grew uncomfortable and advocated for armed presences on campus. 

During the meeting, of the public commenters who came to the podium to offer thoughts on SROs, only one woman was speaking in favor of them, arguing that SROs keep the community safe.

“Our side of the room got very loud and responded negatively to that woman’s comment,” Toroczkai said.

Mishler and Toroczkai argue that SROs don’t make schools safer, but the presence of an armed police officer does the exact opposite. 

But police officers argue they have been in schools for decades, building connections and interacting with South Bend students in a positive way. 

“It takes a special person to interact with kids,” St. Joseph County Sheriff William Redmond told the South Bend Tribune. “I’m not just going to put someone in schools who’s aggressive, who’s just going to arrest everybody. I want our officers to engage with kids and show them they’re human as well.”

Mishler doesn’t disagree that the officers may be good people who make a positive impact.

“I’ve met some of these cops, and they really are concerned, Mishler said. “They really do want to help kids. But it’s not about their individual characters. If they want to do that more than carry a gun, resign from the police force, go become a social worker, go become a teacher. But don’t bring your guns into school where you can terrorize young people. That doesn’t help.”

He and other speakers at the meeting consistently proposed spending funds on social workers, counselors and other support staff in other to help students, rather than maintain the contract with the police.

For activists, the idea of a school-to-prison pipeline is embodied by SROs. As Mishler argues, “The police academy teaches to subdue and correct and arrest.” 

Speakers during the meeting outlined anecdotes and examples of how this might happen. They argued that SROs often step beyond official policy that dictates they only handle criminal activity.

For a student who is smoking a cigarette, they can be ticketed, Mishler said. And then, if they do not pay their fees, it can soon become a warrant, and if they don’t answer that warrant, they risk a felony on their record.

SBPD responded to the ticketing allegation by saying, “When fighting and smoking started getting out of hand in schools, tickets were issued to deter these students from engaging in those activities. This practice has not been enforced for several years.”

For now, Superintendent Todd Cummings has said the SBCSC administration is working to prepare a new contract, which will be presented to the board with a recommendation to continue or end the program at a future meeting.

Mishler is not holding his breath, however, saying that the city’s opposition to an SRO review board signals that South Bend’s politicians want to maintain a close relationship with the police.

“They are ignoring us at the moment,” Mishler said. “Part of what our pressure is because the school board is trying desperately to avoid bringing this up into a public discussion.”

Toroczkai is slightly more hopeful, citing a member of the board who spoke out in solidarity with the advocates.

Until the board comes to this vote, activists will continue pressing this issue. The police will seek to renew their contract, on the grounds that they “[have] proudly served our schools for more than 35 years.”

The SBPD and SJCP maintain they have “mentored thousands of children, helped with life and career paths, created groups that help build self-esteem, coached sports, and built lasting and trusting relationships while helping to keep our schools safe.” 

Mishler sees this as an opportunity for Notre Dame students to step out of the campus bubble and become involved with the South Bend community.

“I think Notre Dame is a hard place for students to kind of connect with the community but we are finding some really wonderful Notre Dame students,” he said. “A lot of [ND students] have had very serious moral education. The group of kids that I’m meeting from Notre Dame now are much more engaged than they have been for a long time.”