Wichita won't be pulling its police officers out of Wichita high schools, but plans to retool the program to make it less about security and more about mentoring and counseling, the city manager said Tuesday.
City Manager Robert Layton told the Wichita City Council he's not going to recommend ending the program, an idea that had been floated in a series of possible cuts to close a $1.7 million budget gap.
The idea of eliminating school resource officers was not popular during a social media town hall last week, particularly amid ongoing concerns over school shootings.
"As a result of that and also some discussions I had with the chief and the superintendent, I think what we'll be doing is not proposing . . . the elimination of that program, but instead, at a later time this year, rolling out a different model," Layton said.
The Wichita school district partners with police departments in Wichita and Bel Aire to have one full-time officer in each high school, along with district security guards. The program costs about $900,000 a year. The city and school district split the cost, although the officers serve other roles when school is not in session.
District officials said police officers — the only armed personnel on campus — enhance security and also act as role models for students.
"They're a mentor, they're an educator, and of course they enhance public safety," said Terri Moses, director of safety services for the Wichita school district and a former deputy police chief.
"I think that the public sees it more as law enforcement because of the things that are happening nationwide, because that is what grabs the most attention," she said. "But we still put a big, big, big focus on mentoring and . . . teaching in a less formal way."
About two-thirds of public secondary schools in the United States had sworn law enforcement officers on site at least once a week during the 2015-16 school year, according to a report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics.
Less than half of those schools had police officers on site every day, as Wichita does.
The Wichita district used to have 22 school resource officers — one in every middle school and high school. In 2008, the bulk of that funding was cut, leaving one full-time officer at each of the district's seven comprehensive high schools.
Over the past five years, full-time school resource officers in Wichita high schools responded to more than 24,500 calls, worked 3,300 cases and made nearly 1,200 arrests, according to city officials.
But some data raises questions about whether full-time, on-site police officers actually prevent crime at schools, Layton said.
"What we actually found is there was a drop in juvenile crime after the SROs left the middle schools," he said.
"We didn't do a regression analysis, so I can't tell you that there is a definite cause and effect. All I know is that we didn't see a spike upwards (after 2008), so the question is, what impact did they have in terms of dealing with juvenile crime?"
There are conflicting studies about the effectiveness of police officers in schools. Many parents and school officials think armed police officers stationed in school buildings are the best way to handle threats at schools. Critics, meanwhile, say their presence can lead to more suspensions, expulsions and arrests — a phenomenon civil-rights advocates call the "school-to-prison pipeline."
District officials say some benefits of having police officers in schools aren't reflected in crime data. School resource officers often counsel students informally about avoiding drugs or gangs, for instance, or just making smarter decisions away from school, Moses said. Many help provide security at high school football and basketball games, where they talk with students and cheer on the athletes.
Mike Rodee, president of the Wichita school board, said he would be "fully against" pulling police officers out of high schools.
"That's one of the best things that we can have as far as community policing — teaching our kids to respect police officers," Rodee said.
"Kids learn to realize that police officers are their friends and not their enemies, and they're willing to work with them. Those types of things are getting lost" in some discussions about school safety, he said.
Layton said the city faces a $1.7 million budget shortfall next year. Cutting school resource officers would save about $450,000, he said.
Layton said the program could be retooled to help meet the school district's desire for "more restorative justice initiatives inside the schools, and to better utilize the people that are serving as community outreach officers for us as SROs."
One of the goals of a revamped program, he said, would be for officers to work with administrators and counselors to handle more problems within the school setting.
"Introduction into our judicial system will be the last resort," Layton said.