by ALEXANDRA RETTER 

 

In fall 2020, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board approved in a split vote establishing new positions, student safety coaches, to support school safety. The plan mainly affected the district’s elementary schools, and the positions replaced WAPS’ former school resource officer (SRO) position. Today, district leaders appear to have decided against the positions. Other positions are better filling the need, Superintendent Annette Freiheit said, and the current situation with school safety is positive. 

The beginning of the proposed position started with the end of another role. School Board members unanimously ended WAPS’ contract for an SRO from the Winona Police Department (WPD) in June 2020. The SRO was stationed mainly at the high school and occasionally worked at the district’s other schools. Earlier that month, students of color, parents and staff called for the SRO contract to end and spoke at a rally about their experiences with alleged discrimination in the district. 

Following the dissolution of the SRO contract, the School Board charged Freiheit with developing a proposed temporary school safety plan within two months. That plan included a proposal for new student safety coach positions. Safety coaches would foster connections with students and families, encourage positive behavior and supervise students in common areas, as some of their responsibilities. The coaches would also participate in training on deescalation strategies, trauma-informed practices, implicit bias and anti-discrimination. The district would hire new positions at the elementary level, while at the middle and high school level, the roles of existing safety specialists would just slightly change. 

School Board members voted 4-3in support of the plan. Their conversation about the safety coach position was intertwined with their discussion of a cultural liaison position to support students and families of color. Some of those who voted no said they wanted to fund both safety coaches and a cultural liaison position. 

Freiheit said in fall 2020 that the district would not immediately hire coaches and would instead reevaluate once full-time or part-time in-person classes resumed throughout the district. She would tell the School Board when she considered hiring, she continued. 

Last school year, WAPS leaders ultimately did not hire school safety coaches, Freiheit said, as hybrid or distance learning were in place for some of the academic year. The district administration also has not filled the positions this school year, she said. “Things have gone well, and we haven’t seen a need to have that position there,” she said. The roles are not included in the 2021-2022 budget, as well, she noted in an email. WAPS has not found a need to hire for the jobs as the district put federal COVID relief funding toward behavioral assistant positions at the elementary level to proactively support positive behavior, as well as deescalate and redirect behavior, Freiheit said. Those assistants are “more aligned with the schools’ needs at the elementary level,” she said. Additionally, the elementary schools of the district are secure, she said, due to practices such as secured school entrances as part of the last referendum. 

As the district begins developing its 2022-2023 budget, leaders may consider whether to move forward with safety coach positions, Freiheit said. If leaders decided to go ahead with considering the positions, they would review previously proposed information about the job description, she added. “I don’t know if we’d actually consider those positions,” she said. While the safety coaches were never implemented, existing safety specialists are still in place at the middle and high school level, with two at both the middle and high school and one at the Winona Area Learning Center. The safety specialist title would change to safety coach.  

Education@winonapost.com