By Devin Blake Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Published May 25, 2024 at 6:01 PM Photography: Edgar Mendez

Beginning in the fall, the Milwaukee Public Schools, or MPS, will be required to collect and report crime and incident data under a new law. 

However, some members of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors have expressed concern about the potentially high costs associated with this requirement. 

The requirement is mandated by 2023 Act 12, a law enacted last summer that, among other things, makes changes to the ways in which local governments are funded.

According to Act 12, public schools, as well as other types of schools, throughout the state must report crimes and incidents annually to their school board or governance body.

These entities must provide the information to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, or DPI; DPI must incorporate the data in its school and district report cards

Crimes and incidents that require reporting include violent acts such as homicide, sexual assault and battery as well as disorderly conduct, arson and possession of alcohol or controlled substances. 

Local and statewide concern

Board directors are not alone in their concerns about what this sort of data reporting would mean for schools.

In October 2021, for example, the DPI submitted written testimony about Senate Bill 585, which outlined a similar crime reporting system to the one now mandated by Act 12. 

This testimony stated that such a system would require changes to the data collection system used between the state and school districts and would require “extensive collection efforts between local law enforcement and districts.”

Dan Rossmiller, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, or WASB, believes that the crime reporting system required by Act 12 would most likely be time consuming, complex and could create substantial costs for both schools and law enforcement, particularly schools in large, urban areas.

WASB is a nonprofit organization that provides advocacy and support to local school boards.  

“There are easier and probably more reliable ways to get this data collected and reported other than to rely on school staff who are not trained in the nuances of criminal law or municipal ordinances,” Rossmiller said in an email to NNS. 

“Despite our many attempts to persuade lawmakers of this, they persisted in requiring school personnel … to make these determinations, and to collect and report this information,” he said. 

Making such determinations, Rossmiller added, will only add to the burdens on school personnel amid an already challenging staffing situation.

Budget concerns remain

Megan O’Halloran, school board director of District 8, also is concerned about the financial burdens associated with Act 12.  

O’Halloran said that creating a data reporting system is one of several additional costs associated with Act 12 that comes with no additional funding.

“Of course I have ideas on what I’d want to fund instead. But at this point, we’re fighting for the very survival of our programs,” O’Halloran said.

Such budget concerns remain despite the recently approved referendum, which provides $252 million to MPS, said Erika Siemsen, school board director of District 2. 

“This referendum will still require us to make some cuts this year and until the structure of how schools are funded changes, there will be ongoing budget concerns,” Siemsen said. 

Siemsen said she would much rather see “time, money and energy put towards supporting and expanding our programs that are restorative, proactive and in line with what our students have told us they want.”

Effects on students

Amber West is an organizer with Leaders Igniting Transformation, or LIT, which has for years advocated for MPS to divest from the Milwaukee Police Department. LIT is a nonprofit organization led by youths of color. 

West worries that other unanswered questions about Act 12’s data requirements will inevitably lead to other harms. 

In particular, she said, the definition of “incident” in Act 12 is vague and unclear, adding schools would be forced to report to law enforcement common, nonviolent student disruptions.

She said such actions “will not make Milwaukee students safer, but instead will make them more vulnerable to harmful, over-disciplinary actions on campus and lead to the unjust criminalization of youth,” West said. 

"Our kids are too important"

Lawmakers who sponsored the initial legislation said that the crime reporting requirement in Act 12 is simply a matter of student safety. 

State Rep. Jerry O’Connor, R-Fond du Lac, acknowledged that there has been “pushback from a few school districts” concerning the costs and difficulties in carrying out data reporting. But, he said, “our kids are too important for this Act to be undermined by school administrators.” 

“Crime and violence in schools need to be identified, measured, communicated and addressed,” O’Connor added.

State Rep. Amanda Nedweski, R-Pleasant Prairie, said the law directs the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, or DPI, to communicate rules and guidance about the new requirement.

Any concerns from school districts about how to comply with the law should be addressed by DPI during this rule-making process, Nedweski said.

DPI has not said exactly how much creating a data system like this would cost locally, only estimating that it would increase costs.

DPI Communications Director Abigail Swetz told NNS that locally elected school boards should be making decisions about a school’s safety strategies.

“It’s unfortunate that partisan politics were inserted into what should be a local, nonpartisan process that includes listening to community concerns, especially those raised by students and their families,” Swetz said. 

Stephen Davis, media relations manager for MPS, stressed MPS’ intention to focus on collaboration during the process.  

Davis told NNS that MPS continues consult stakeholders, including student groups; the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, or MTEA; the Administrators and Supervisors Council; district staff; community members; and MPD.