The most compelling case for keeping police officers in Madison’s high schools came last week from a student who had done her homework — and who wants to learn more.

Ameya Sanyal, a Madison Memorial student who represents thousands of her peers as a non-voting member of the School Board, politely raised her hand to speak near the end of the board’s three-hour meeting Aug. 29.

More than a dozen citizens and students had testified against renewing the district’s contract for a uniformed and armed police officer at each of the city’s four main high schools. Critics claimed the officers target minority students, and they contended the money for officers could be better spent on other student services.

Most of the School Board is seeking a one-year — rather than three-year — contract extension. If the city and School Board can’t reach a deal in the next few weeks, the officers could be pulled from school grounds. That would be a risky mistake for a district that’s already scaled back its discipline policy to reduce expulsions.

Sanyal wants the officers to stay — and so do other students she spoke to her at every high school and in student groups representing minority students, she said.

“Our officers in our schools are the best of the best,” Sanyal said.

They help mediate disputes and restore justice for victims in meetings with the perpetrators. Unlike teachers, police have specialized training for situations that escalate.

“Our officers protect students every day from harm, and behind the scenes they’re removing hazardous items from students’ backpacks, helping students navigate hazardous situations, and always working to keep our students safe,” Sanyal said.

“I think that’s why there’s less of a chance (of an incident) happening where an armed student could hurt other students,” she continued. “Officers are only called in when our own staff members cannot handle a situation. Even then, they try to avoid giving a citation.”

Sanyal called for more transparency and data on what school police do.

“Evidence should drive our actions,” she said. “So we need to collect the evidence first.”

Indeed.

Madison Mayor Paul Soglin has insisted on a three-year contract so his police department can recruit the best officers for school jobs. More stability produces better applicants.

Maybe the city could budge and go with a two-year contract, rather than a three-year deal, if that’s more politically palatable for the School Board. But city and school officials shouldn’t let a stalemate jeopardize public safety.

For nearly two decades, police officers have protected and built a good rapport with countless young people at Madison high schools. Their police cars conspicuously parked in front of schools encourage traffic to slow. And their presence inside sends a message that drugs and violence won’t be tolerated. A trained and armed officer can even save lives, as the scary shooting at Antigo High School showed this year.

“I am a student of color, and I will feel highly unsafe without an officer,” Sanyal said at last week’s meeting.

Many parents will similarly worry about student safety if the police officers leave. City and school leaders should make sure that doesn’t happen.

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(c)2016 The Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, Wis.)

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