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OPINION | GREG HARTON: Fayetteville’s off/on support for police officers in schools back up for discussion

by Greg Harton | April 30, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.

In Fayetteville, the Great School Resource Officer Debate of 2020 became The Great School Resource Officer Debate of 2022, with distinctly different outcomes.

Now, witness the 2023 version of the same issue.

Last August, the Fayetteville City Council voted unanimously to support adding two school resource officers, or SROs, a year until an officer is stationed at each school of the Fayetteville School District. The school district, including its elected school board, backs the presence of specially trained police officers at its 16 -- soon to be 17 -- schools facilities.

By August, the city and school district will be partnering on nine officers.

It was 2020 when the City Council, in a hugely controversial move, rejected a federal grant to fund two SROs. That was in the wake of the George Floyd killing by municipal officers in Minneapolis. Critics convinced seven of the eight council members to shelve Police Chief Mike Reynolds' request for the grant.

One outcome reflects the occasional oddities of local politics. The negative reaction to that 2020 decision, at least in part, helped Scott Berna unseat one of the incumbent council members. A big part of his campaign was criticizing the SRO decision. Sarah Moore also unseated an incumbent. She's been a critic of school resource officers through her advocacy in a group called the Arkansas Justice Reform Coalition.

Things had changed by August 2022, which the City Council unanimously supported the continued buildup of the SRO program in partnership with Fayetteville schools.

Last week, Reynolds asked the City Council for permission to apply for a new federal grant, this one for $250,000 to help cover the costs of two SROs for three years, starting in 2024. The measure was on the consent agenda for this Tuesday night's meeting. A consent agenda is designed so noncontroversial items can be voted on en masse to save time.

Under City Council rules, any member can pull an issue off the consent agenda to be discussed more fully. Moore last week did just that with the federal grant proposal and a second SRO-related item to purchase nine vehicles for the officers' use. In a flash, the stage was set for the Great Student Resource Officer Debate of 2023.

Berna wasn't thrilled. It's been less than a year since the City Council established its intent to keep hiring new school resource officers, he said. Forcing a new debate at Tuesday's meeting is a waste of time, considering six of the current members were among those who supported last year's measure. The 2020 rejection "shocked the community" and woke city residents to the question of whether a small but vocal group should control whether the community will protect its schools and students, Berna said.

Moore says the City Council's consent agenda rule shows how much Fayetteville values conversations on the best ways to approach important and complex issues, including a long-term investment like the SRO program. The SRO issue is part of a broader evaluation of public health and safety in a city with limited resources, she said. How does expansion of the SRO program fit with issues like access to health care and housing, connectivity for getting around the city, poverty, taxation and other public policy issues that demand local leaders' attention, Moore asked.

Expect the opposing viewpoints to consume a lot of time Tuesday. Berna and Moore both said it will be a meeting lasting for hours, with at least two or three other complex issues on the agenda. In the end, I'll be surprised if the vote to support the SRO program is less than 7-1 or 6-2.

If, as Moore suggested, Fayetteville residents value the conversation, that's exactly what they'll get Tuesday night.

Print Headline: School officer controversy back again


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