Rethinking Resource Officers


simon mehring

The Stoughton Police Department is located at 321 South 4th Street in downtown Stoughton.

As defined by the United States Department of Justice, Resource Officers are “Sworn law enforcement officers for safety and crime prevention in schools.”
The Stoughton Area School District has not had a contracted School Resource Officer (SRO) since the prior agreement between the district, police department, and city expired in 2020 when the SASD board of education voted not to renew SRO contracts. This was, in part, due to all SASD schools being closed in accordance with Dane County health protocols because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dan Jenks, Stoughton’s Chief of Police since Sept. 2022, expressed interest in reinstating an SRO at SASD.
“We’re lacking that constant communication. […] Before, everyone met in the middle with an SRO,” Jenks says. “It seems like a component of communication is just missing without an SRO.”
Jenks explained that the pros of having a full-time, contracted SRO at the high school could streamline communication between the police department and school/school district.
SROs have different responsibilities based on the terms agreed upon by the district and police department. A major priority in talks between these two groups is to make the responsibilities of an SRO the most efficient.
“They would be responsible for all of the investigations on the campuses. If there were a need for an investigation for something that occurred with a student, then that officer would be our number one person to go to. […] I welcome the opportunity to provide a quality officer for them, and if it takes a re-shaping of the position that might be it. There’s always a way to do it better, no matter what you do,” Jenks says.
Although Jenks has expressed interest in starting the conversation and process of getting an SRO back at SASD, no official steps have been taken with the district. Both Jenks and SASD School board President Francis Sullivan highlighted that collaboration is necessary to tackle issues that an SRO could create.
“It’s a partnership. It’s a decision not just made by the police department, it has to be embraced by the school board,” Jenks says.
Similarly, Sullivan also explained the importance of working hand in hand with the police department and the community to address the topic.
“Everything has to be agreed upon between the district and police department because the police department is the officer’s employer,” Sullivan says.
The last contract for the SRO at SASD agreed that SASD would pay 75% of the contract and the City would pay 25%. Sullivan explained that the board is in the process of discussing what exactly the officer would be responsible for.  “We’ve had some discussion of the SRO position in committee [the Culture and Climate Committee], discussing the issue,” Sullivan says.
The prior contract, which expired in 2020, was not extended due mainly to the pandemic. The board didn’t see a need to renew said contract while children were learning remotely. The board has not since approved a new contract for a SRO.
“We saw no reason to renew, while we were virtual. After we went back in person it’s just something that has yet to happen,” Sullivan says.
The role of an SRO at SASD has yet to be defined, but Sullivan explained the district and police department are working to agree upon what role an SRO would play and what its responsibilities would be.
“It’s an issue that’s very much tied into the discussion of SROs across the country. What precisely are they supposed to do, and how do we know if they’re doing it correctly or not? If the board concluded that it did in fact want to go back to an SRO, we would see an agreement between the district and police department on a specific set of duties and responsibilities for the officer, combined with a set of reporting metrics to allow us to tell if the officer is doing what we had hoped they were doing or not,” Sullivan says.
Both Sullivan and Jenks are encouraging these conversations to get started, and Sullivan explains any concerned citizen is free to leave a comment to the school board or email a member to do such. Sullivan also explains how the board is open to working directly with students by conducting a student body survey on the topic.
“I think that [a student body survey] would be very new and very useful for us. You are the ones that have to live with these decisions and can see on the ground how they work. You have a different perspective from the staff. I think that students’ opinions are very important and valuable,” Sullivan says.
Both Jenks and Sullivan said that whether SASD and the Stoughton Police Department do or don’t reimplement a SRO, they are both committed to providing safe learning environments in SASD schools.
“Currently, without the SRO in place, we do have regular meetings with school staff including Superintendent Dr. Keyser. We talk about strategies, we talk about what-ifs. There are plans in place, but that SRO component would be that line of communication that we need,” Jenks says.