by ALEXANDRA RETTER
When the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board unanimously agreed to end the district’s school resource officer (SRO) contract in June, board members directed Superintendent Annette Freiheit to develop a potential temporary safety plan for the district and bring it before the board within two months. Many community members called for a cultural liaison to be hired as a way to support students and families of color, though that was not presented as part of the safety plan. The potential temporary safety plan arrived at the board table last Thursday and proposed that student safety coaches with an approximate salary and benefits cost of $36,481 to $45,246 be assigned to the elementary schools. Current middle school, high school and Alternative Learning Center (ALC) school safety specialists’ jobs could be shifted to student safety coach positions.
The aim is to have at least one safety coach at each school, Freiheit said in an interview. For six-and-a-half hours a day, 184 days a year, student safety coaches would work to foster connections with students and families, encourage positive behavior and supervise students in common areas such as hallways, among other responsibilities. Freiheit shared that she could see the safety coaches walking through the building, talking with students and providing support to other staff members if someone tried to enter a school building without authorization. In researching districts that had replaced their SRO, Freiheit found that one had great success with student safety coaches, she said.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, they would assist with isolation rooms at the schools for those who display COVID symptoms during the school day.
The district had allocated $88,000 for fiscal year 2021 to pay the Winona Police Department for the school resource officer. These funds came from the safe schools levy. That money would go toward the school safety officers, and potential costs above the $88,000 could come from revising the general fund balance, Freiheit noted.
Safety staff would also take part in training on topics including de-escalation strategies, trauma-informed practices and implicit bias and anti-discrimination. Staff development funds of $5,000 could be put toward that training.
Currently, there are two safety specialists at the middle school, two at the high school, and one at the ALC on an 0.6 full-time equivalent basis.
The SRO contract was dissolved amid Winona, like the rest of the U.S., grappling with questions of equity and inclusivity after the death of George Floyd. In June, a rally took place at which students of color, parents and staff members voiced that they would like the SRO contract to end and spoke about instances of racism and trauma in WAPS. During that time, students and families also expressed their wish for a cultural liaison to be hired to serve students and families of color. The board did not approve hiring a liaison in a split vote while approving the budget for this academic year that same month.
The directive the board gave Freiheit stated that the plan would address replacing the SRO with resources tied to counseling, mental health and trauma-informed practices. The directive also said that WAPS would continue its analysis of students support services, such as counseling and social work. The board approved this analysis in June and will receive updates on the study periodically, with one coming to the September 3 meeting. A final report on student support services will be at the board table by December.
Board member Allison Quam noted that she had wished for the board to support a cultural liaison position when it ended the SRO contract. Freiheit explained that she viewed the student safety coaches as being move involved in school safety and a cultural liaison as being more involved with supporting students and families.
Work regarding the possible development of a cultural liaison position is still being done. Considering the position is part of the study of student support services on which the board will receive an update in September, Freiheit noted in an interview.
“We would want any type of position like that to be one that is sustained from year to year,” Freiheit shared of a cultural liaison position.
In addition, the district’s Diversity and Equity Committee (DEC) earlier this month approved recommending to the board that the position be established. The committee also voted to recommend to the board that a person of color with experience in bolstering students, families and communities of color be hired to fill the position; that the job description for the position be developed by multiple stakeholders, including students of color and community members; and initial responsibilities for the person chosen to hold the position include helping students of color academically and behaviorally and being involved with staff development about cultural competency and related topics.
DEC member Rose Carr shared that she supports the creation of a cultural liaison position, but she also wishes people of color were hired for other professional roles in the district. “What about integration in all levels?” Carr said. “And I’m saying that not as an ‘I don’t support this.’ I completely support this. And it makes be frustrated that we’re not talking about bigger, to stretch it further.”
DEC member Dwayne Voegeli shared that he hoped for the recommendations about the cultural liaison position to be approved by the committee at its August meeting so the suggestions could go before the board as soon as possible and a cultural liaison could possibly be hired before the beginning of this school year.
“… Part of the biggest problem that we’re not talking about most of the time is how everything is delayed and delayed and delayed, months, years,” Voegeli noted. “I would bet you a dollar that if we don’t approve it today, it won’t be approved for two or three or four months. And we’ll be talking about this in December, about how we should be getting a person of color in the district. So, justice delayed is justice denied …”
Freiheit asked whether a DEC member had reached out to her to see how the recommendations may fit in with the work she is doing to create the potential temporary safety plan and said she had not heard from anyone. “I support having the position, so I’m a little upset that I seem to be the person non grata in this group,” Freiheit shared during the DEC meeting.
Some DEC members expressed concerns about recommendations regarding how to fund the position, as well as some language initially used to describe a recommended hiring process for the position. Those recommendations were ultimately not approved or changed before approval by DEC.
Board member Allison Quam recommended that the committee center its recommendations on why having the position is important. “We will get lost within all of these other details … and we’ll end up focusing on the funding part, and, ‘Oh, can we use staff development and Title IV [funds],’ and the whole point of this position, the discussion of having it, will get lost in these other things, which are just as important, and I think should happen, but first and foremost, I think the School Board needs to be convinced we should hire such a position,” Quam noted.
The board will next meet on Thursday, September 3, at 6 p.m. The meeting may be viewed at https://winonak12mnus.finalsite.com/district/school-board/live-stream.