As Some School Districts Look To Remove Officers, Peoria Says It's Already Reform-Minded

Jun 23, 2020

Activists have added school resource officers to the larger conversation of police reform in the United States. Some call for the removal of police from schools. Others are looking at ways to change officer roles.

But those leading school safety in Peoria Public Schools say they've had decades to get it right.

Chief Demario Boone said the department was established in the 1970s to handle race riots breaking out in the schools. He said officers got to know students before problems arose.

“Our approach to law enforcement and criminal justice is the reform that everyone is now asking for," he said. "What I mean by that is, I have officers that will walk hallways and they can literally see a kid not going to class, talk to that kid and it turns into getting services for the home."

Boone said that could be tutoring, counseling, even food. His team focuses less on what a student did wrong and more on how they can help address the root cause of a behavior, he said.

Until 2014, the campus police department operated independently of other law enforcement agencies and had a separate certification. Boone said a former superintendent didn't want police in schools and disbanded the unit.

Credit Peoria Public Schools

Since then, they've operated as a "school safety team," which Boone said has its drawbacks.

“When we had arrest powers and the firearms, when there were fights in the schools, the arrests weren’t automatic," he said. "If you don’t have a department and you have an officer from the outside who is running from call to call citywide and gets a call to your school that, 'this student hit this teacher,’ he’s coming to clear the call—because he’s got a backlog of several calls waiting.”

It also has meant the district had to bring in city police to handle armed security.

School board member Dan Walther said the district was paying $260,000 a year to staff Peoria police in three high schools. Walther said they've since struck a deal with the state's attorneys office to allow some of their own guards to carry guns again.

"The city of Peoria is actually in a much tougher financial situation than we are," he said. "Plus the fact that they need these three guys back out on the streets, not in the high schools. I think it’s a win-win for both of us. We’ve got our own people that we feel very confident in in the high schools and then they’ve got three more people that would be back on the police force for Peoria.”

Still, there's some pushback to having police in schools at all.

Charles Bell teaches criminal justice at Illinois State University. His research focuses on black students' and parents' perceptions of school safety. Bell has interviewed about 160 students and parents in Illinois and Michigan over the last three years.

“Students, regardless of the school’s location—urban, suburban—students overwhelmingly harbor negative feelings about school guards, because they view the guards as aggressive, as sort of overstepping their boundaries, being invasive," he said.

Bell said students didn't seem to have a problem with guards being around as long as they were doing what they were supposed to be doing—things like breaking up fights. But he said students often felt the guards escalated situations by behaving aggressively.

“Parents, on the other hand, are divided," he said. "So you have parents in suburban school districts, particularly predominantly white areas, that had favorable interactions with school guards—and kind of viewed the resource officers as a team, in a sense."

Bell said parents in urban districts are more mixed on the question. He said they want a barrier between schools and violence in the community. But they also feel resource officers criminalize children.

He said there's an opportunity to create a healthier environment when administrators, parents, and students have open conversations about community needs.

Mariah Cooley is president of Young Revolution, a group of organizers leading the calls for police reform within the city of Peoria. Most are graduates of Peoria high schools.

Cooley said during her time at Richwoods, she never saw school officers getting physical with or starting heated arguments with students. In fact, she said, they worked hard to form personal relationships.

"I can understand how some students may feel uncomfortable with a police officer being around," she said. "But I think that can just be easily resolved by explaining why we have the resource officers and police officers in the building. I think once that discussion is had, there can be a little bit more clarity and peace about it."

Chief Boone said the concern about criminalizing students is valid. But he said it's an art his department has mastered.

“I think that having the culture right when you have school resource officers is a huge asset for a school district," he said. "And I think that we’re an anomaly, in that we’ve been doing it so long that it’s just like second nature to us, to not just look at ‘Oh, what’s wrong with that kid?’ but ‘What happened to them?’ and try to fix it that way.”

He said that's a lesson other law enforcement agencies could learn.

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