Sascha Bretzger, a recent graduate of the Charter School of Wilmington in Red Clay, remembers being a junior when armed law enforcement officers started showing up at schools in response to school shootings nationwide.
"Having an armed officer roaming around the halls did not make any student feel safer," she said. "I remember having so many conversations with fellow students and my peers about how it put us on edge, and I was in a school that did not have a majority black student body. It was majority white and Asian, and so we would not have been the typical target for police brutality, statistically, and we still didn't feel safe."
She said, simultaneously, it was difficult to get an appointment with a mental health professional at the school.
She was among dozens of students, school psychologists, and educators who voiced their overwhelming support Wednesday night during two hours of public comment on a proposal that seeks to remove school resource officers (SROs) from Red Clay schools, replacing them with mental health counselors and psychologists. The resolution was proposed by Red Clay School Board members Adriana Bohm and Jose Matthews. If passed, Red Clay, the state's largest district, would become the first in the state to remove SROs.
Shannon Griffin, a policy advocate and community organizer for the ACLU of Delaware said their research backs up Bretzger's claims.
"Research indicates that having school-based police contributes to making students feel less safe and negatively impacts student achievement. The recent deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor illustrate that law enforcement officers may enforce an unlawful use of force, creating a significant safety risk for youth at schools. In particular, students with disabilities and black and brown students are most likely to experience use of force at schools."
According to the federal civil rights data collection, Delaware students attending schools with police were arrested at rates eight times higher than the arrest rate of students attending schools without police.
She said the students would be far better served by investments in counselors, who she said can better respond to their needs.
"Research has shown that the presence of school-based mental health providers like counselors, social workers, psychologists [and] community mediators can result in positive outcomes for students and improve school safety, generally," she said. "In addition, these schools have seen improved attendance, improved academic achievement, career preparation, improved graduation rates, and fewer disciplinary incidents and lower suspensions and expulsions," she said.
Dr. Lisa Elliott, who's been a school-based psychologist for 30 years, said seeing students' rights violated repeatedly by SROs, was a factor in her early retirement. While she acknowledged the majority of officers have good intentions and kind hearts...
"But the nature of their jobs, and the nature of their training doesn't always make them a good fit for working in schools, especially in programs designed to help students with significant mental health needs," she said. "Most SROs have little training in mental health and don't easily see the connection between students' behavior and their disabilities."
She pointed to students with impulse control disorders being arrested for acting impulsively and students with oppositional defiant disorder arrested for being defiant.
"And I've also seen SROs arrest students with special needs repeatedly, in spite of the student's right to receive services," she said.
She noted SROs also lack training in child development.
"Humans brains continue to develop well into their twenties. A lot of the behavior that SROs treat as problematic is just part of the adolescent brain's struggle to regulate itself," she said.
Dr. Linda Getman, a psychologist at The Central School in Red Clay, said the ratio of student to school-employed mental health professionals needs to be addressed.
"While it is clear that most students with mental health challenges do not present a risk for school violence, of those students who do commit such an act, a significant percentage have mental health challenges. Thus to better ensure psychological safety, it is critical that quality mental health care be accessible in our nation's schools," she said.
Dwayne Benson, a former middle school teacher, also supports removing SROs from schools, saying they create trust issues.
"SROs is like adopting non-violent resistance while carrying a billy club. It's non-sensical...I've never heard of a district award a Teacher of the Year award to a teacher because he or she had called an SRO, much less awarding a Teacher of the Year Award to an SRO. Isn't that telling? SROs don't work. Calling an SRO means 'I have given up.' It breaks down the relationship between the teacher and the student; you can no longer learn from someone you no longer trust."
Conversely, John Thompson, a math teacher at H.B. DuPont Middle School and retired U.S. Army soldier, spoke out against removing SROs from schools.
"On a personal level, I take great comfort in their presence at my workplace, and it relieves what was a tremendous burden on my shoulders going into a building every day that could potentially be a target for violence given past events across the country. As a teacher, and potentially, the last line of defense for my students should the unthinkable happen, my hope is that those who are charged with the responsibility of safety take every reasonable measure in order to ensure our continued protection and well-being."
He also spoke as a father or stepfather of five Red Clay graduates, two in the Autism program.
"The presence of officers in their schools has been a great comfort to me," he said.
He called on the board not to make this decision lightly.
"What concerns me today is that there's discussion to remove these officers without consideration of that continued threat to their safety. If there's data...that shows the threat against our schools has been eliminated, then I would support the removal of officers from our schools. But if that threat still exists and the board moves forward to remove those officers despite that continued threat,m what I'd like to know as a teacher, as a protector, as a father, is what proven methods of deterrents against an armed intruder who means to bring harm to my students is the board considering in lieu of our officers?"
Delaware State Police, whose troopers often serve as SROs, had no comment on the Red Clay School Board's proposal.
Community activist Keith James, who is running to be a state representative against incumbent Sean Matthews, said he struggles with the proposal.
"My battle with removing SROs from schools has to do with the safety of our children. Violence in our schools has led to children losing their lives here in Delaware," he said.
Sophomore Amy Joyner-Francis was killed after a fight in Howard High School's bathroom in April of 2016.
James wants to see SROs being required to partake in trauma-informed and sensitivity training before entering the role. He also wants to see more mental health professionals in schools too as well as deeper conversations into systemic racism in education.
"I don't think it should be an if/or. We should be able to fund our mental health professionals in our schools while also utilizing the platform that you have to help with community policing--to help change the stigma that results in the way police officers see your students, and the way that students see your police officers."
The Red Clay School Board is scheduled to vote on the proposal at its next meeting July 8, 2020.