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Madison police chief wants to implement redesigned SRO program into MMSD schools

NBC15 Investigates collects data from 911 calls for service to all four MMSD high schools from first semester.
Fights and school walkouts at Madison East High School back in the first semester made headlines around Madison.
Published: Feb. 21, 2022 at 10:00 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 21, 2022 at 10:25 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Fights and school walkouts at Madison East High School back in the first semester made headlines around Madison. It was the first semester students were back to in-person learning after the pandemic kept students home for most of 2020. Fall semester 2021 was also the first time kids were back in class since the district decided to get rid of student resource officers, a police officer assigned to each school.

After that violence, a number of parents reached out to NBC15 worried for their child’s safety in school. Those parents heard the stories second-hand from their kids of what it was like when there is a fight in school. After collecting thousands of 911 calls made to MMSD’s four high schools, and even getting the 911 audio from a handful of them, there is now a clearer picture of what it’s like inside school walls during a fight.

There are calls of chaos inside East High School as a school administrative assistant calls police to report a fight.

911 dispatcher: Address of the emergency?

school assistant: 222 East Washington Avenue. We are having multiple kids in fights. We need a police presence to assist.

911 dispatcher: How many people are involved?

school assistant: It’s hard to tell, a group of maybe 50. There have been multiple fights.

911 dispatcher: What’s the fire alarm going off for?

school assistant: We are trying to restrain a student in the Welcome Center, and she pulled the fire alarm. They’re trying to keep her in there by keeping the doors locked, but she’s kind of going nuts in there.

911 call from November 8, 2021

Parents call, too.

parent: My daughter’s calling me. She called and said people were hitting her. Adults are hitting her with sticks, table legs, anything you can name, they’re hitting her with it.

911 call from November 8, 2021

parent: Good afternoon, my son is a student at East High School, and he was pepper sprayed today. What happened? He has no clue.

911 call from November 8, 2021

parent: Okay, my son got beaten up by two kids and the school’s policy is to do their investigation before they call police. But as a parent we are calling police. My son’s got a swollen eye. He was punched and kicked by two individuals in class, by the way.

911 dispatcher: I’ve got help on the way. If anything changes, call us back.

Involving police less is one of the goals of MMSD’s new student safety plan put into place back in 2020. Instead, the school focuses on solving conflicts from within, without officers.

Open records requests show from September to December in 2019, 393 calls for service were made to all four MMSD high schools combined. During this timeframe, SROs were in schools. During that same timeframe in 2021, there were 310 calls for service made to the four schools. That’s down 21-percent.

More emergent calls that dealt with things like battery, fights, police assist and weapons offenses in semester one of 2019, there were 98 calls. In first semester 2021 there were 94 calls without SROs. That is a 4-percent decrease.

But Madison Police Chief Shon Barnes says data doesn’t tell the whole story.

“We can look at calls for service, we can look at numbers, but we cannot ignore that qualitative data that says if you take time to get to know someone, you’re going to establish those relationships, and it makes someone feel better,” says Chief Barnes.

Barnes says when his officers respond to the school without an SRO present, it’s harder to understand the situation and students involved.

“We work as professionally as we can, but really there’s no substitute for someone who knows the kids, who knows the principal, who knows the difference between someone who’s having a behavior and emotional need that’s recognized and identified that the SRO already knows about. And that person already knows their strategy as opposed to having officers come trying to do the best they can with de-escalation tactics and things of that nature,” explains Chief Barnes.

The chief is speaking from personal experience.

“I am a big supporter of the SRO program. I was an SRO for three years of my career, I was a public school teacher for 4 years of my life, and I’m a blue blood. My brother is a police officer in North Carolina and he is currently an SRO. So I know the value of that program if it’s done well and if it’s done correctly,” says Barnes.

Chief Barnes says he’s made those connections and says they can work to keep kids safe right here in Madison.

“I think we can sit down. We can talk about hey, how can we help? It may not be a full return. It may be a partial return. It may be something where officers can come in and do a couple of classes to talk about rights and community policing,” says Chief Barnes. “I’ve had a few conversations with leadership with the school district.”

NBC15 Investigates reached out to MMSD Superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins to get his thoughts on the Chief’s proposal and if he thinks the current safety plan is working. After six weeks and 14 emails back and forth with the district’s communications manager, Tim LeMonds, our request for an interview with the superintendent was denied. LeMonds stated the district has already done interviews in the past and have “spent an enormous amount of time responding to and providing information,” so they would have nothing else to add. The last time Dr. Jenkins did an interview with NBC15 on school safety, though, was at a press conference at the beginning of November, three months before NBC15 Investigates compiled 911 call data.

Chief Barnes has ideas of what a new SRO program could look like, but there’s no concrete plan yet.

“I think the program can be good. I think it can be revamped. And you know what? We can come together and create the new model of school resource officers and maybe that model is something the entire country adapts,” says Chief Barnes.

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