Guest Commentary by Frank Slagle I would like to address a proposal by the city management for a full-time police officer to be stationed in our public schools. Under one version of the proposal, the police officer would be uniformed and armed. Under another version of the proposal, it might not be necessary for the officer to be armed, although it is likely that he/she would be uniformed. The details have not been made final.
Many citizens are not even aware that this idea is being proposed. I want to take this opportunity to inform citizens of the proposal so that they have time to discuss it among themselves � before it becomes final.
I oppose the proposal for several reasons. We already have one of the most heavily policed communities in South Dakota. We have more police officers per citizen than Brookings or Aberdeen, both of which are university communities. We also spend more money per citizen than either Aberdeen or Brookings. And, with this proposal, we will be increasing that excess capacity to station an additional full-time officer in the schools. I don't think we need more police in Vermillion.
I have another objection as well. I simply do not believe that we have so much violence in our schools that we need to station a full-time police officer there. Indeed, many people actually move to Vermillion so that their children can attend our schools precisely because it is relatively safe when compared with other schools, and especially when compared with schools in larger cities. Just because large cities need police protection in the public schools does not mean that we need it too.
History bears this out. Since I have lived in Vermillion, I recall one murder several years ago, and that was not committed by kids, and it was not committed on school property. During that same time period, we have actually had two people killed by lightning strikes. A citizen in Vermillion is far more likely to be killed by lightning than by school violence. In addition, it was disclosed after the recent tragedy in Littleton, CO that they did have a police officer in school. Yet, it did not prevent the slaughter that occurred there. Littleton was an example of craziness, and craziness is almost impossible to prevent, even with a police officer. How many additional police officers do we need to guard against the most remote events?
There are two rationales that have been concocted to support the proposal. First, the police officer would not be present to prevent violence, but rather, would be there simply to have lunch with the kids, and to enhance communication with them. Well, we already have a resource officer in the schools that does that very thing. Moreover, that sounds more like a job description for a counselor rather than a police officer. If the school district needs to hire a counselor, then let them do that. But, to hire a police officer who has been trained in law enforcement or criminal justice to work as a counselor seems like a misfit to me.
Besides, do we also want to send a message to our kids that either they need full-time police supervision for disciplinary purposes, or that our schools are not sufficiently safe without the full-time police protection?
Of course, there is another reason for the proposal. There is some free federal money out there for a limited period of time, to cover the initial cost. We are being seduced by some short-term free money. If history is to be our guide, whenever we hire a temporary employee under these circumstances, that employee always becomes permanent. It happened just two years ago, when I first came to the city council. I tried to block it at that time, and I failed. As a result, the size of our city staff grew, as it is about to grow again. As I already mentioned, we put a lot of money into our police department. Is it necessary for us to spend more? When is enough, enough?
I asked Dr. Bob Mayer, the superintendent of our schools, if the school district would be willing to fund the salary of the officer after the federal money expires. He categorically said no! Because, he said, the school district has many demands for its money, and he would rather spend it on things the district needs more. But, he would welcome it if it was free to the school district.
Well, it would not be free to the city. If the city does decide to station a full-time police officer in the public schools, the citizens of Vermillion will eventually be funding an additional staff person in the schools. I believe the cost of staffing the school system should be borne by the school district, which extends outside the city limits, and not concentrated onto the shoulders of the citizens who happen to live within the city limits.
Well, I do agree with Dr. Mayer on one point. We should spend our limited funds on the things that we need most. For example, how about road repair? Next time you drive down Plum Street, take a look at the pavement. If we spent a little less money on things that we don't need, would we be able to afford some better maintenance on Plum Street, or any of the other streets that are in equally rough shape? Or, how about the spiraling cost of health care coverage for our city employees? Since I have been on the council, the health care premiums that we pay have continued to increase at some pretty astounding rates. For next year, they will increase another 17 percent which is actually smaller than the last couple of years. Can we afford to hire additional staffing, when we are already pressed to pay for health coverage for our current employees?
Let me be clear about two things. First, I am not opposed to the police department cooperating and collaborating with the school district whenever a crime has been committed, or when a police intervention is warranted. Nor am I opposed to the current resource officer participating in the DARE program, and seeking to discourage the use of alcohol and drugs by our children. Rather, I simply think those activities can easily be covered with the current level of policing in our community, I do not believe that we need to hire additional personnel to do that.
Second, if our community wants full-time policing in the public schools, they should be able to have it, even if it means that city taxes will eventually increase. Having said that, I don't want this important decision to be made without giving the public advance warning before a final decision is made. Whether the public supports the proposal or not, they are entitled to have an opportunity to discuss it, and to see it there is any majority consensus, before a final decision is proposed. I simply do not want a final decision to be made without an adequate opportunity for public debate on this important community issue.