Education

Louisville Metro Police Chief Erika Shields continued calls for expanding police presence in Jefferson County Public Schools Wednesday. Speaking on a panel at the Louisville Forum, Shields butted heads with University of Louisville criminal justice professor Cherie Dawson-Edwards and Jefferson County Board of Education member James Craig.

The three agree that community violence is a problem as Louisville grapples with another record-breaking year for homicides and gun violence. But they disagree on the solution. 

Dawson-Edwards pointed to her own research in JCPS, showing that adding school resource officers, or SROs, to schools with large Black populations made Black students feel less welcome.

“We weren’t convinced that we need armed resource officers in schools,” Dawson-Edwards said. “The things that the SROs talked about that they did…any trusted, well-trained, nurturing adult could do.”

Dawson-Edwards said she thinks schools are already largely safe, and that it’s off-campus where students face the most threat of violence.

“I still believe, and the research supports across this country, that inside schools is the safest place for kids to be for those seven to eight hours a day, and to characterize it and mischaracterize it as not being that, I think is a shame,” she said.

Shields disagreed, saying officers are needed in schools “to be able to detect gang members, gang violence, track social media so they know when these folks are fighting.”

“I’m the one seeing the bodies,” Shields said. “And hearing people talk about research papers and data — that doesn’t cut it for me, folks. I’m practical. I want to see a different result.”

Shields began her calls for police in schools after 16-year-old Eastern High School student Tyree Smith was shot and killed at his bus stop in the West End.

Craig, who represents District 3 in northeast Jefferson County, appeared to take issue with the dispersions Shields repeatedly cast on data and research.

“You want your policymakers, you want your leaders, making decisions based on actual data, based on actual research and not on appeals to emotion,” Craig said.

Craig was among the board of education members who voted in 2019 to end SRO contracts with Shively and Jeffersontown police departments and the sheriff’s office. The vote came after LMPD pulled its 17 officers from the district due to budgeting issues and personnel shortages.

JCPS hasn’t had school resource officers since the end of 2019. However, a small, unarmed, internal police force known as the Security and Investigations Unit continues to serve in a law enforcement capacity.

In the audience were several students from Central High School, the district’s historically Black high school.

Student Jayden Marshall, who is Black, agreed with Shields that police are needed.

“I think it will make the schools safer as far as fights or altercations,” Marshall said. “A fight breaks out—most teachers aren’t equipped to break up fights.” 

But his classmate, Rikaiya Long, had a different opinion. Long, who is also Black, said she had an SRO in her building at Meyzeek Middle School.

“There was always a set group of kids that got searched every day,” she said. “It mentally broke down the students, and I watched it happen…I saw how much it affected them.”

Instead of police, she said, schools should bring in more mental health specialists.

The issue will likely come to a head soon. Craig said given the pressure the district is facing from Republican state lawmakers in Frankfort, a larger district police force seems inevitable. The GOP-led legislature passed a School Safety Act in 2019, which required districts to hire a school resource officer for every campus “as funds and qualified personnel become available.” 

JCPS had a plan in the works to create its own unarmed force of SROs, until 2020 when lawmakers passed another law requiring all SROs to carry a gun. Board members and district say it was the pandemic that halted talks on the JCPS SRO force.

Now, lawmakers have prefiled legislation ahead of the 2022 legislative session that would strike the words “as funds and qualified personnel become available” from the act, effectively forcing JCPS to hire an armed SRO for each of its 150-plus school buildings.

Lawmakers will discuss the issue when they return to Frankfort in January.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.