EDITORIAL: Stop dithering on SRO

THE SUPERINTENDENT OF THE CHATHAM Central School District said this week that the district is negotiating with the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office for the placement of a part-time school resource officer (SRO) in the district. If the board finally makes a decision, it’ll be just after kids go home for summer vacation.

Comments made at a recent school board meeting expressed the reservations some members of the board still have about the offer made last winter by Sheriff David Bartlett. The sheriff volunteered to station a uniformed deputy at the school for 20 hours a week and to pay for this SRO from the county budget for the Sheriff’s Office. Board members have since proposed a written agreement that includes a trial period for the officer. Theirs is the only public school district in the county presently without a school resource officer.

In addition to limiting how long the district would commit to the SRO program, the concerns raised by board members include the prospect of having to pay for the program in the future from district taxes if the sheriff does not continue to fund it. These worries sound like symptoms of a collective insecurity complex.

The Board of Education and its administrators have extensive authority over all school activities except in the case of emergencies. They can structure the program any way they want, as long as a majority of the board votes for it. So how much does it cost district taxpayers for lawyers to draw up the SRO agreement?

Apparently the other school districts in the county do not have formal legal agreements with the Sheriff’s Office. And it didn’t take them months of discussion and debate to approve an SRO. If the Chatham board knows something negative about the school resource officer program that the boards of the other five districts in the county have missed, you’d think they would have shared it by now.

There is one objection that doesn’t come with a price tag. It’s a fear referred to almost casually and not only in Chatham. The term you hear is “police state” and it’s used to describe the result of allowing a police officer to join the school community. It’s a distorted view of the purpose and performance of local police agencies, especially in connection with school safety.

Americans do face threats to our liberties from the overreach of law enforcement. Some police and spy agencies collect, retain and abuse almost as much data about our lives as private industries do. There are police who unfairly target classes of citizens based on the color of their skin, their presumed national origins and their religious affiliations. There are, as well, individual bad actors in any police force, just as there are bad guys in all walks of life.

And police states do exist. Look at North Korea. But does accepting a part-time SRO in the Chatham school buildings constitute an abandonment of elected government in favor of a dictatorship by a hereditary “dear leader”?

The notion of police as a public service controlled by democratically elected bodies has only been around for a couple of centuries. We’re still learning how to balance the power we give law enforcement agencies with the need for strict limits on the what we allow them to do and how they’re allowed to do it. The task has grown more difficult as society changes at warp speed. There are no simple answers.

But there’s a reason why police are a primary target of terrorist violence in some of the most dangerous places on earth. Police are an indispensable component of a stable, democratic society and terrorists don’t care for stable democratic societies. A police state is what you get when there are no police or, when people who call themselves police function outside of the social fabric, using terror to oppress the public.

Chatham schools are in no danger of terrorist attack. But board members skeptical of the SRO are not bravely resisting a step down the road toward tyranny, either. They suffer instead from a failure of imagination. This is an opportunity for the schools to explore the common ground between the lives ordinary people and the role of the police sworn to serve them. The next generation desperately needs this knowledge. What is the board waiting for?

It’s time for the Chatham Board of Education to accept Sheriff Bartlett’s offer for the SRO and begin preparing for a successful program starting with the first day of school in September.

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