The Anchorage School Board wants the force of school resource officers to grow from 15 to 25 in an effort to increase safety in schools. But, the Board says, the school district doesn't have the money to pay for the additional officers' salaries.
It is asking the Municipality of Anchorage to reassign 10 more of its police officers to the School Resource Officer Unit. Those additional officers would be stationed at Anchorage's middle schools during the school year. The Board approved a resolution earlier this month that included the request.
"We have an increase in police numbers in our city and why not put them where they can be most effective and address parents' and community concerns about safety for kids," School Board member Alisha Hilde said during a joint Board and Anchorage Assembly meeting Friday, where the resolution was discussed. "I think it's beneficial to everyone to have those SROs."
Currently, the School Resource Officer Unit has 15 officers. They're uniformed, armed, certificated police officers whose salary is paid by the municipality. During the school year, they're stationed at all Anchorage neighborhood high schools and one middle school, Clark Middle School.
At Friday's meeting, Board members ticked off the benefits of having school resource officers: They serve as role models, their presence helps deter crimes, they enforce the law in schools, they do community outreach — talking to students and listening to their concerns.
But some Assembly members questioned whether more school resource officers was the best way to increase safety, and whether moving more police officers to schools was the best use of resources.
"It's true that we have aggressively expanded the police department. It's also true that our police are extremely busy, pursuing things like sexual assault crimes and drug crimes and trying to reconstitute the theft unit," Forrest Dunbar, Assembly chair, said in an interview after the meeting. "I think it would be a pretty major ask of our police chief to take one in 10 of our new officers."
Under Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, the Anchorage police force has increased from 360 sworn officers in July 2015 to 429 as of Friday, according to police spokesman MJ Thim. By Monday, when the next police academy starts, that number will jump to nearly 450, Thim said.
School Board member Dave Donley sponsored the resolution asking the city to assign 10 police officers to the School Resource Officer Unit. He described it as "a reasonable request." Adding more officers is just one piece of improving safety in schools, he said.
"The SRO program in Anchorage has been very successful and I think it's a very logical next step to expand, given the current climate change in the nation of school violence," Donley said.
The Anchorage program started in 2003, Thim said.
During Friday's meeting, the Assembly ultimately decided to ask Anchorage's public safety advisory commission and the police chief to discuss the Board's resolution further and give their input.
About the Board's resolution, Thim said in a statement: "We appreciate the recommendation and understand the intention behind it. We will take it into consideration as we develop our SRO plan for the 2018-2019 school year."
Anchorage Schools Superintendent Deena Bishop said the district also continues to work on other safety improvements, including keyless locks. That recommendation came out of committees the district created to review Anchorage schools' safety and security measures in the wake of the Florida school shooting on Feb. 14 that left 17 people dead, most of them students.