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Panel discusses police presence in Benton Harbor Area Schools, MSP steps in

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- Tuesday afternoon a panel discussion was held in Benton Harbor asking the question, “does adding police to schools reduce crime?”

The question is being asked after police have already been introduced to the district.

The panel was the 5th stop of a tour hosted by the African American Leadership Institute, and aimed to build an agenda for public policy and focused on policing in a school district.

The tour made previous stops in cities like Detroit, Flint and Pontiac.

“I believe that the police being there is an addition to what already needs to take place at the school,” said one mother with a heart-wrenching story regarding her daughter’s injustice from inside a school Benton Harbor school.

Questions of police presence having a place in schools, specifically in Benton Harbor were answered with clashing opinions that circulated a room filled with concerned citizens.

But one thing everyone living in the school district can agree on-- “It’s about education and the lack of in the community,” a panelist said.

Benton Harbor Schools are in the middle of reform.

“Our overall goal is to improve our students’ academics in both reading and math in a very short term and our graduation rates,” explained Superintendent and CEO of BHAS Robert Herrera.

He says without a safe learning environment for teachers and students, “There’s really no hope of getting teachers to do new practices in the classroom to get kids engaged and learn in different ways, and be able to focus more on the academic end.”

Right now two sheriff’s deputies are in Benton Harbor High School until a Student Resource officer takes duty.

“I don’t want get distracted by thinking that it’s about an SRO, an SRO certainly isn’t a magic bullet to improve our reading and math scores, and reduce our dropout rates. Nor is it a code of conduct, nor is it a curriculum in itself. It’s how all these things fit together and how well our adults implement them,” Herrera explained.

But people at the panel, say they’re worried police in the district will not be properly trained to deal with the needs of the students in the schools, and that they will pipeline kids into the prison system.

Herrera says that officials in the building will not put people in jail.

“We hope that the position of SRO would evolve more into community policing, we would get the SRO to visit other buildings and do more law education. And, there’s a lot of community programs that will support that,” he said.

Police having a curriculum and a purpose while in schools is a necessity expressed by concerned citizens at the panel.

And now, the Michigan State Police Department is stepping in, but their role in the school district  has not been decided.

“We’ll commit whatever we need. If we have that resource, and it’s something that we can make an impact and ensure the safety of the students and the faculty, we’ll provide it. At this point we are committing at least one trooper,” Captain Kyle Bowman, 5th District Commander, explained.

A follow-up meeting will be held next week to discuss the MSP's role in the district. 

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