The Columbia Board of Education passed a new school resource officer agreement at its meeting Monday.
“As we do with many different organizations that we contract with, this is just a renewal of that contract,” board vice president Jonathan Sessions said Monday afternoon.
Under the new contract, Columbia Public Schools will pay $206,837 for four resource officers. Those officers will be distributed between each of the three high schools. The fourth officer will be assigned to two middle schools instead of having an officer at each of the middle schools.
“I think this contract is a great example of how we can move forward with community policing. In the future having more officers in more buildings to start building relationships with students the better,” Sessions said.
CPS will also be responsible for 55 percent of the cost of salary and benefits for any hours the officers work over 80 in a two-week period. Under the previous contract, CPS and the city split the cost evenly.
“I have heard no concerns from my fellow board members, so I imagine it will pass,” Sessions said.
A Columbia City Council vote to approve the agreement is set for Oct. 21.
The board approved the agreement 6-0. School board member Blake Willoughby abstained from the vote after residents raised an issue with a provision in the agreement allowing SROs to lead a ninth grade advisory class.
The deal allows SROs to lead a group on “topics of importance to adolescents,” such as school safety, decision making, drug use and gang activity. Superintdent Peter Stiepleman said on Monday that allowing them to lead the groups was important to implementing officers deeper into the school’s community.
“If we’re going to have SROs be able to integrate into the school community, we ought to see them also enthralled as teachers,” Stiepleman said. “They are professionals and experts in their craft, and we want them to have a presence in our ninth grade environment.”
People at the meeting questioned how qualified the officers were to lead the groups. Chimene Schwach, a parent of a CPS student, said she had difficulty even volunteering at school.
“You are going to let an SRO, who is not a teacher, who is not a counselor, who is not trained in actual mental healthcare to teach my child an advisory class. And I find that to be galling,” Schwach said.
Willoughby told ABC 17 News that he felt there was more work to do to “beef up” the education provided in those groups by partnering with mental health experts and educators. The current SRO contract, though, expires on Nov. 1, and the board will not meet again until after that date. Willoughby said he thought officers were doing a good job, but thought more could be done to work on the group.
“I think that there’s something we can do with those public comments given of concerns around that, that we can continue to collaborate with other entities in our community, and right now, we just don’t have the time to have that conversation fully for this agreement,” Willoughby said.