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PORTAGE — Residents and officials here remain divided over the issue of school safety.

In two meetings over two nights both sides spoke, laying out their cases in the dispute which began this spring.

During a contentious City Council meeting Tuesday night, supporters of Portage Township School Superintendent Amanda Alaniz and Alaniz herself took issue with the city's handling of whether or not Portage police officers can continue to serve as school resource officers in the school district.

On Wednesday, about 80 people gathered at the police station during a town hall-style meeting in which Police Chief Troy Williams said he wanted to give his side and correct rumors and inaccuracies about the issue.

Portage police officers have served as SROs in Portage schools since 1999. In May, following the Noblesville, Indiana, school shooting, Williams announced his department would be sending two more officers into the schools at no charge to the district as part of a 10-point school safety plan.

In June, the School Board adopted its own school safety plan, which initially removed Portage officers from working in the district. In addition to several proposals, SROs would work on a rotational basis and come from districts outside of Portage.

After some negotiations, it was agreed that the two full-time Portage officers would return as SROs in the district while negotiations on other issues, including uniforms continued.

When school began last month, Williams sent two additional officers to the schools. The officers were asked to leave the buildings and spent their time watching the schools from the parking lot.

At that time, Williams, who is running for School Board, posted his side on Facebook. Others began posting comments and threats against Alaniz, including photographs of her home, her address and telephone numbers. Alaniz asked for police protection. Williams took down the post.

Last Friday the city received a letter from an attorney representing the school district saying effective Sept. 5, no Portage officers would be used as SROs in the district.

At Tuesday's council meeting, Alaniz said what was happening over the issue was "disgraceful." She told the council that the department was hiding behind a facade of transparency and there was a lack of accountability, trust and collaboration between the schools and city.

She accused Williams and Mayor James Snyder of an "abuse of power."

Council President Mark Oprisko, who's wife, Cheryl, serves on the School Board, proposed a social media policy for the city. The policy passed 4-3 on first reading and will be considered for adoption at the council's October meeting.

Oprisko said the proposal was a direct result of Williams' Facebook post in late August and the lack of management of the page and speed in which the post was removed. Oprisko said obscenities were posted on the page by commentors and were not removed quickly.

Oprisko criticized Williams for misusing the taxpayer-supported paged, said it was manipulative and immature.

Williams apologized to Alaniz Tuesday night and said it was never his intent for her or others to receive threats. He repeated his statements at Wednesday's town hall meeting.

At Wednesday's meeting Williams was joined by Snyder and several former SROs for the city.

Outside a small group held signs and protested. The protest was led by the Rev. Michael Cooper of Metropolitan Community Church Illiana.

"Our students are treated more like suspects than scholars," said Cooper, adding police and Williams have been heavy handed in dealing with students.

That echoed a claim by Alaniz and Portage Association of Teachers President Debra Porter last month. The two held a news conference and accused the department of making too many arrests and creating a "pipeline to prison."

Inside the police station Williams refuted those claims, providing numbers that indicated in most years less than 1 percent of Portage students were arrested and only for serious charges.

Capt. Mike Candiano, a former SRO, told the packed audience that any arrests were made in conjunction with the school's administration.

Candiano also praised the One County One Protocol effort and said, despite rumors, Portage remains involved and has not backed away from the countywide school security effort.

Williams said he has no dispute with officers who are serving as SROs from other jurisdictions.

"I'm not saying the officers in the building are not capable of protecting your children," he said.

Williams added, however, that Portage has been using SROs longer than anyone, are well trained and are considered experts in school safety.

Williams said one of the disagreements with the schools is over uniforms. While the schools want SROs to wear polo shirts, he said there are benefits to wearing full uniforms because officers need to be prepared for anything and need to have equipment available, need to be recognized by students and staff and are important elements in deterring crime.

"We want kids to see a uniform as someone to run to," said Assistant Police Chief Ted Uzelac.

Williams said Portage also declined to put officers on the part-time rotational shift for several reasons, including union regulations and policy and procedures that needed to be worked out.

(This story has been edited from an original version.)

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 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.