IOWA CITY — The national debate over whether armed police officers belong in schools has come to the Iowa City school district — and the idea is receiving plenty of scrutiny from the community.
“The thought of it is horrific to me,” said Royceann Porter of Iowa City, a member of Johnson County’s Juvenile Crime Prevention Policy Council. “I don’t think Iowa City has gotten to the point where that’s needed.”
Some studies back up concerns, including an oft-cited one that found having what are known as school resource officers leads to minor offenses being criminalized and does not improve safety.
The Iowa City school board is to vote today on whether to join Iowa City in applying for a federal Community Oriented Policing Services grant to help fund the hiring of two police officers to be based out of City High and West High.
In response to the Newtown, Conn., school shooting last December, President Barack Obama proposed putting more police officers in schools. A task force associated with the National Rifle Association recently called for an armed officer in every school in America.
The Connecticut school shooting, and the grant availability, spurred the Iowa City school district’s interest, Superintendent Stephen Murley said. The initial thought was to have two officers for the high schools and junior high schools, but Iowa City police thought that would spread the officers too thin.
A 2011 study in Justice Quarterly, which did its own data analysis and also reviewed other studies, found no proof that school resource officers decrease crime.
Supporters, though, point to crime statistics to back their view. In the 2009-10 school year, the most recent available, there were about 40 crimes per 1,000 students in public schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Just Monday, an Iowa City police officer was stationed at City High in anticipation of problems, and five juveniles were arrested after a fight occurred.
The district had this debate in 1994, with community opposition focused on guns causing the school board to drop a plan to place armed police officers in the junior high schools.
The issue of guns in schools has drawn opposition again.
“No one can predict what will happen when armed security personnel are stationed full-time in the schools, especially given that they’ll be intervening in student conflicts,” Chris Liebig, an Iowa City parent of three kids in the school district, wrote in an email. “Police officers are well-intentioned, but everybody’s fallible. It certainly won’t make me feel like my kids are any safer.“
Iowa City Police Chief Sam Hargadine said school resource officers must carry guns.
“There are times we deal with guns showing up at school, and one of the first rules we all learn in the academy is you don’t come to a gunfight with a knife,” he said.
The federal report for 2009-10 found that, in schools of 1,000 or more students, like City High and West High, 74.6 percent had security staff that routinely carried a gun.
Another concern from the public is more kids ending up in the criminal justice system.
The Justice Quarterly study found that schools with police officers tend to shift discipline away from staff to the police and minor behavioral problems get treated like crimes.
Murley said Iowa City school officials would be heavily involved in the hiring of each officer and would want someone focused on diversion programs, which try to address problems without criminal charges, as opposed to punishment.
“You’re looking for somebody who has that judgment to make the right decision for kids, the school, the community,” he said.
Another fear is minority students could be unfairly targeted.
The Justice Quarterly study found this not to be the case, but a January report by a group of civil rights organizations cited several examples in which minority students were arrested at disproportionately high rates.
Valerie Horton, who is black and has twin 15-year-olds at West High, believes that could happen here.
“I feel like they put those police officers in those schools, our kids will end up with records,” said Horton, of Iowa City.
In the Iowa City school district last school year, black students made up 44.8 percent of students school staff referred to police, but just 16.6 percent of total enrollment. Another 17.9 percent of police referrals were for Hispanic students, who were 8.9 percent of all students.
School and city officials said an officer who better knows the students may be able to improve the situation. Disproportionate minority contact, as it’s called, is already an issue here and nationwide, City Manager Tom Markus said.
“It seems to me that, without burying that problem, you should try to make it better,” he said.
Iowa City parent Dana Taylor, who is black and has a child at City High and another in elementary school, agreed it may be a good way to build trusting relationships with youths.
“And the police officer gets to know the kid and sees their side, too,” she said.
That’s what has happened in Cedar Rapids, where the three comprehensive high schools each have school resource officers, said Deputy Superintendent Gary O’Malley.
“They actually counsel and support our students and their families,” he said.
He said he has not seen any problems with students being arrested for minor offenses or with minority students being treated unfairly.
Sgt. Cristy Hamblin, spokeswoman for the Cedar Rapids Police Department, said there is a racial disparity in school arrests and, while she does not believe officers are targeting students of color, they are trying to determine the reason.
In calendar year 2012, black students accounted for 42 percent of the 151 arrests at Jefferson, Kennedy and Washington, but are just 12.7 percent of total enrollment at the three high schools this school year.