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School board approves $1.8M in contracts for SROs

Alamance-Burlington school board members voted 7-0 Wednesday to approve $1.8 million in annual contracts for school resource officers – absent any of the controversy that prompted them to adjourn early last week, or any of the calls to “defund” the SROs they fielded in the weeks following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody.

Instead, school board members voted unanimously, 7-0, Wednesday afternoon to renew the annual SRO contracts with the Alamance County sheriff’s department, the Elon University police department, and the county’s five municipal police departments (Burlington, Mebane, Graham, Elon, and Haw River) for an estimated total cost of $1.8 million, which represents a 36 percent increase in the cost for the current 2020-21 fiscal year. School board members voted unanimously Wednesday to approve a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that spells out the objectives for the SRO program, as well as the duties of each law enforcement department and the officers they provide for ABSS schools.

The school system’s estimated total cost of $1.8 million for the upcoming 2021-22 fiscal year reflects an increase of about $494,000 from this year’s cost of approximately $1,354,000 for the fiscal year that ends June 30, ABSS finance director Jeremy Teetor acknowledged at the outset of a brief discussion Wednesday afternoon. “We are on year three of three [of incremental increases in the cost for the contracts] so the agencies are not losing money on the officers,” the finance director explained. “It does include money for each elementary [school] in the county’s jurisdiction to have SRO coverage.”

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In a subsequent interview with The Alamance News, Teetor confirmed that ABSS receives approximately $259,059 in annual grant funding from the state, offsetting about 20 percent of the total costs for SROs for the current 2020-21 fiscal year.

Teetor alluded Wednesday to the fact that, during previous budget discussions, school board members had pressed the administration to increase funding to provide SROs for elementary schools in the farthest reaches of the county.

ABSS officials have included $260,000 in their county budget request for the upcoming fiscal year that would be used to hire four additional SROs. They had requested $110,000 in additional county funding for the current fiscal year to hire one SRO each for Alexander Wilson and E.M. Holt Elementary schools, as well as funding for an additional position to provide backup for the existing SROs at Cummings and Williams High schools. For the 2019-20 fiscal year, the school board agreed, at the administration’s urging, to redirect $80,000 in existing state funding to hire SROs to rotate among four of the most geographically-isolated elementary schools in the county: Altamahaw-Ossipee, B. Everett Jordan, Pleasant Grove, and Sylvan.

Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson was seated in the audience Wednesday afternoon, as he had been last Monday night for the meeting that school board members ultimately adjourned, prior to discussing (or voting on) any of the items that had been on that evening’s agenda. Johnson confirmed for The Alamance News Wednesday afternoon that he had been invited to attend both meetings, since his department’s SRO contract was scheduled for a vote, both times, on the school board’s meeting agendas.

Representatives from several municipal police departments also attended both school board meetings, last week and again on Wednesday afternoon, for the scheduled contract discussion.

School board member Patsy Simpson reiterated concerns she’d previously expressed about how much of a role SROs have in student disciplinary hearings. “The concern I get from parents,” she said, is a section within the MOU, which states that “nothing shall preclude the SRO from…serving as a witness at student disciplinary hearings if requested by school officials.”

That statement, included in a section that spells out the duties of an SRO, “kind of muddies the water” between what should be handled by law enforcement and “the regular school disciplinary issues” that should be handled by a principal, Simpson said Wednesday.

Simpson also raised concerns about the possibility that an SRO could search students and/or their belongings without parental consent or knowledge, and without a parent or guardian present for a search. “We have to protect our students to the degree we can,” she said. “I think it’s important not to take away the right of parents.” Simpson suggested tightening language in the MOU to make a clear distinction between the roles of SROs, versus those of school administrators, and to beef up another statement directing school officials to contact parents or guardians before attempting to interview students. “Students or parents don’t lose their rights because they enter into the schoolhouse,” she said Wednesday.

School board attorney Adam Mitchell of the Tharrington-Smith law firm in Raleigh said language from another policy, which outlines the process for conducting criminal investigations on school property, can be incorporated into the MOU. “I’m sure your law enforcement feels strongly” that school officials are responsible for enforcing the code of student conduct and ABSS policy, and that law enforcement is responsible for enforcing criminal law. Just because an SRO is present when a potential violation occurs, the MOU wouldn’t prohibit that officer for describing what he or she saw, just like any other person, Mitchell explained.

Lt. Brandon Mays of the Alamance County sheriff’s office, who accompanied the sheriff to the school board’s meeting last week and on Wednesday afternoon, said that in most cases SROs would not be involved in a disciplinary hearing unless it involves a criminal violation. In the case of a fight, the SRO would escort the students involved to the principal’s office, he said. “A lot of times, a parent or guardian will come in and say, I want to press charges,’ Mays elaborated. “A lot of times, those are victim-driven, not law enforcement-driven.”

The ABSS policy that the school board’s attorney cited Wednesday specifies that law enforcement officers who must interview a student at school should make every effort to minimize disruptions and avoid embarrassing the student, and should not cause a student to miss class time. The policy also states that any interviews with law enforcement should be conducted in a confidential setting, once a child’s parent or guardian has been notified, except in cases of suspected abuse or neglect that potentially involve the parent/guardian.

“Every member of this board spoke loud and clear – every one of us spoke about the need for SROs,” school board member Wayne Beam recalled Wednesday, referring to their discussion about the SRO contracts in June 2020. “Everyone on this board supports law enforcement.”

School board members voted 7-0 to approve the MOU and six individual SRO contracts, which run through June 30, 2022.

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