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PORTAGE — The battle between the school district and city over the deployment of school resource officers here came to a boil this week with the school district threatening legal action against the city.

At issue is the assignment of Portage police officers at the schools.

When school started Wednesday, Police Chief Troy Williams assigned officers to Fegely Middle School and Portage High School West. They were in addition to school resource officers (SROs) already assigned to Portage High School and Willowcreek Middle School.

Williams said school officials requested the officers leave the school buildings. The officers stationed themselves in the schools' parking lots instead. Williams said he continued to send the officers to the schools on Thursday and Friday, where they were again asked to leave. They spent the day in the parking lots.

Superintendent Amanda Alaniz said the officers were not only asked to leave, but she had conversations with Williams and Mayor James Snyder earlier in the week asking them not to send the two additional officers to the schools because the officers had not been approved by the school board, nor were they part of the school district's comprehensive school safety program.

"You can't say you are committed to safe schools when you refuse free officers," Williams said Friday.

"Saying that we are not caring for our students is unspeakable," Alaniz said. "The problem is they want it their way. They have made it clear that they don't want any other agency in the schools except Portage."

Differing school safety plans

The disagreement between the city and schools began earlier this year when the school district announced it would be taking a multi-jurisdictional collaborative approach to deployment of school safety officers (SROs). A safety plan announced by Alaniz in June called for, among other things, hiring a pool of police officers from Portage and other jurisdictions to provide SRO functions on a part-time basis.

Williams and Snyder had announced just a month before, following the Noblesville, Indiana school shooting,the city would add two new SROs to the district at no cost to the schools. The additional SROs came as part of Williams' own 10-point school safety plan.

After Williams and Snyder balked at the school's safety plan, which initially removed any full-time Portage officers from the positions, the school district agreed to maintain the two Portage officers already acting as SROs in the mix, but fill other positions with part-time officers from additional departments, including Porter County Sheriff's Department and Indiana State Police.

Williams said he believed the city had approval of the school district to station two additional officers at the schools this year. He said he was told Monday that was not true.

Alaniz said Snyder and Williams are overstepping their bounds by sending police to schools without district approval.

"Neither have the right. How dare he and the mayor override our larger plan," Alaniz asked, adding that SROs are just part of the school district's overall school safety plan.

Alaniz said she, as superintendent, has the legal authority to operate the school district and she must operate it under policies adopted by the School Board. 

Things came to a head Friday on social media after Williams posted about the disagreement on his own Facebook page and the Police Department's page, which elicited Facebook users to call for protests at Alaniz' home. Williams told The Times after learning of the inappropriate comments, he plans to have comments monitored moving forward. Those inappropriate comments were also taken down. 

Legal action possible

In a letter, dated Wednesday, Alaniz threatened legal action.

"This letter serves as notification that Portage Township Schools expects the Portage Police Department and the city of Portage to adhere to the parameters outlined in our agreed-upon and board-approved school safety plan. In the event that this does not occur, Portage Township Schools will take the necessary actions up to and including filing an injunction detailing the actions invading the legal right of the school district to carry out our necessary operations in regard to the board-approved SRO plan. Furthermore, Portage Township Schools may possibly withhold payment for the assigned SROs and reconsider the finalization of the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) due to the violation of this state statute," reads Alaniz's letter to Snyder.

Alaniz said they have employed 10 certified SROs to work in the district and have their own specially trained team of school safety specialists at the schools. She said Portage officers were invited to apply for the part-time positions, but were not allowed.

Williams said Portage officers did not apply because of differences in job descriptions between Portage and officers from other jurisdictions.

Snyder said he has no problem with the multi-jurisdictional collaboration plans utilized by the school district. However, he added, he is responsible for the safety of Portage residents, including students and will continue to assign additional police to school buildings.

"Portage Police Department will continue to ensure our schools are safe, especially with the heightened problems the nation has been dealing with the past two years.  I have relied on the 20+ years of SRO experience of the Portage PD Administration in Chief Williams, Major Lisa Duncan and Captain Candiano," Snyder said in a written statement.

"I simply have heeded their advice in what they believe is needed to adequately protect the schools. The school superintendent and Chief Williams have both put together exemplary plans that do not contradict; I believe and support both of them. Superintendent Alaniz has provided a multi-jurisdictional approach that is great. Chief Williams and Portage have provided more resources and officers assist in making schools safer. In the end, no matter what the school’s position is (whether they want the officers in the building or we leave them in the parking lot), our schools will be safe," Snyder said. 

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.