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Urbana schools debate renewing police officer contracts

From left: Officer Chad Burnett, Officer Michelle Robinson, Urbana High School Associate Principal Julie Blixen, and UHS Principal Taren Nance at the District 116 board meeting on Tues. May 3.

URBANA — Urbana School District 116 is debating whether to keep police officers in its schools for another three years.

Staff and students want them to stay, according to limited survey data and anecdotes from students, teachers and administrators.

Taren Nance is the principal at Urbana High School. He says students trust the officer at his school, Chad Burnett.

“Today, Officer Chad and I had to get involved in a situation with a student. Once we got the student isolated, Officer Chad dropped down on one knee and the student got de-escalated. All the theory I’ve learned over the course of ten years, I see him applying that,” Nance said.

District 116 added one fulltime officer each to the middle and high school in 2019 after a fight resulted in arrests and injuries.

Some board members are concerned the district still does not have data to show police officers make the schools safer than more social workers would.

In the five years prior to expanding police presence in 2019, Urbana public schools saw 33 school-related arrests, with three students ultimately charged with a crime. Schools have seen 29 arrests since 2019.

“I don’t see that anything’s really changed. Why are we paying all this money, when we could pay that money for actual support staff who work in our district, who are accountable to us?” asked board member Anne Hall.

Superintendent Jennifer Ivory-Tatum says District 116 has a wealth of social workers compared to other school districts. She says schools do need the separate expertise of police.

The Urbana school board has set aside $3.2 million a year for the salaries of almost 70 social workers and related staff. In comparison, the district would spend $270,000 next year on the two police officers.

Ivory-Tatum also contextualized the arrest data with numbers showing that violence has dramatically increased in Champaign-Urbana since the COVID-19 pandemic began, as it has across the country.

Champaign Unit 4 recently renewed its own school resource officer contract. However, the Champaign police department has not stationed officers at the schools since last summer due to staffing shortages.

The Urbana 116 board plans to vote on the school resource officer program at its next meeting on May 17th

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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