Amidst calls for police reform, Anchorage School District opts to keep School Resource Officer program

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop at a press conference announcing the district will extend spring break an additional week over concerns about coronavirus on March 12, 2020. (Hannah Lies/Alaska Public Media)

Anchorage School District Superintendent Deena Bishop defended her decision to keep the School Resource Officer (SRO) program during the school board meeting Tuesday night.

The program, which started in Anchorage in 2003, is a partnership between the district and the Anchorage Police Department. It stations armed and certified Anchorage police officers in district schools during the school year.

Most of the district’s high schools are assigned two officers who also visit each of the feeder middle and elementary schools for their assigned high school.

The call to remove officers from schools is part of a growing list of demands from communities across the country advocating for police defunding and reform following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis late May 25.

Bishop said she was prompted to look into the SRO program after hearing about a school in Portland severing ties with the local police department while she was listening to a call with the National Black Caucus.

Bishop said she isn’t aware of any complaints with the program.

“I had never heard of any negative reports that I’ve had to deal with since I’ve been here for four years and I wanted to know: were there any out there? Where do we stand?” she said. “We didn’t have that information, we didn’t have anything logged, we didn’t have any incidents that we had responded to in regard to negative or inappropriate actions of SROs with students.”

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Bishop said Anchorage Police Chief Justin Doll reported no complaints with the resource officer program during his tenure.

The SRO program has come up before, but under different circumstances. 

In June 2018, the Anchorage School Board unanimously passed and approved a resolution asking the municipality to assign 10 more officers to the program in order to station officers in the district’s middle schools as well as high schools. It would have increased the program from 15 officers to 25.  

School Board Member Dave Donley recommended the resolution.

“These SROs provide counseling, camaraderie, early warning, all kinds of services that I think would be a huge advantage to making our middle schools safer and really protecting our students,” Donley said at the time.

Currently, there are 14 officers working in district schools. A spokesperson for the Anchorage Police Department said the number will increase to 15 officers next school year.

Bishop sent an email to families last week, explaining her decision to keep the program. In it, she said SROs are not responsible for discipline or policing school hallways and that she would prefer an SRO respond to an incident than an officer who’s unfamiliar with a school community.

A handful of parents gave public testimony during the board meeting criticizing Bishop’s decision and her email. 

Andrea Reynolds, whose son is Black, said that the email did not take into account the experiences students of color have with officers.

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“I didn’t need a poem from her, I need a plan,” she said. “So please keep in mind the safety of our kids and I don’t think that the police are really making anyone feel safe right now and I don’t need to make her feel better about her recognizing race when she’s not even identifying with culture.”

Celeste Hodge Growden also testified against the decision. Growden is the current President of the Alaska Black Caucus and past president of the Anchorage NAACP. Growden says people in her community do not have the same trust and professional relationship with SROs that Bishop referenced in her emai

“To suggest SROs should continue in our schools after a conversation with the police chief, [and] not families of color within our community or our students, is a top-down approach that continues the disenfranchisement of our students,” Growden said. “We must demand more and expect more from our school district.”

While it is not the school board’s policy to respond to public testimony during the meeting, Bishop did comment on the messages she’s received since sending the email. Bishop said she understands that it was not received well. 

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“There aren’t any excuses if I did not communicate well or if it didn’t sit well with folks,” Bishop said. “But it just demonstrates that probably because of the emotion that it’s something that we should be addressing in ASD and I’m willing to do so.”

School Board President Elisa Vakalis announced a community discussion about the school resource officer program will take place July 21st at 4pm.