There are roughly 46,000 School Resource Officers patrolling the halls of America’s schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. These officers are charged with the critical responsibility of keeping our children safe during school hours. However, several recent high-profile incidences have cast the School Resource Officer (SRO) program in a decidedly negative light. Evidence of excessive force, racial bias, and reinforcement of the so-called school-to-prison-pipeline have undermined the ability of officers to effectively keep children safe and threatened to worsen already tense community relations.
SROs operate outside of any central or federally-imposed training standards, meaning that many have little to no training at all for dealing with children. As we explore hereafter, the results are startling, exposing our children to heightened safety risks and undue initiation into the criminal justice system. We’ll outline the shortcomings in the current SRO program and offer a few actionable solutions, the adoption of which we consider a matter of necessity and common sense.
Collingswood is a friendly little town in South Jersey. Its population is a mix of rising young families and long-time working class residents. Main Street’s farmers markets and olive oil stores are just miles from neighboring Camden, which topped the list of America’s most dangerous cities in 2015. Philadelphia is just a ten minute train ride away, and with it, all the crime and poverty challenges that inhabit American metropoli and their schools.
But in Collingswood there’s almost no evidence of the violence, poverty, or blight that plague those nearby inner-city schools. So when a police officer was called to the scene of the William P. Tatem Elementary School on June 16th, one might assume it was for a very good reason.
Well, you be the judge.
As the third grade class prepared for its year-end party, one student noted that brownies were being served to the class. A fellow third-grader misconstrued the reference as racist. This confrontation prompted a call to the Collingswood Police Department. An officer was promptly dispatched to the scene.
There, according to the boy’s mother, the offending nine-year-old child was interrogated without the advocacy of a parent, lawyer, or educator. It was a one-on-one showdown between a confused third-grader and a police officer packing a firearm and nightstick.
In the nearly two decades since the Columbine High School massacre—and in the aftermath of the numerous school shootings that have occurred since—police officers, or school resource officers (SROs), have become a common presence in the hallways, parking lots, and grounds of high schools, middle schools and—as the Collingswood case proves—even elementary schools. But is this growing presence making our students safer? Or is the SRO program exposing our children to a different set of dangers?
The brownie incident, absurd though it may seem, is part of a growing trend. We are witnessing an increase in confrontations between law-enforcement personnel and unarmed, underaged students, even for minor offenses . As police officers become ever more ingrained in the fabric of education, the line between disciplinary and criminal matters has grown increasingly blurry. And on a more systemic level, the rise in zero-tolerance disciplinary policies means that more students than ever before are finding themselves in the courthouse rather than the principal’s office.
In an era where tensions between police officers and the public are perilously high, many schools have become a breeding ground for bilateral contempt between departments and the communities they are meant to serve. This pattern threatens the safety of students and officers alike. Perhaps even more problematic, it undermines what truly should be an opportunity for both sides to build trust, establish solidarity, and strengthen communities.
A number of recent, high-profile incidences have cast the SRO program in a negative light. But the publicity surrounding these incidences should be regarded as an opportunity to rethink our SRO program from top to bottom: from policy standards to training standards; from community relations to student relations; from schoolwide intervention to case-by-case intervention.
The SRO program should be a positive presence in the lives of our students but there is much that must change if this is ever to become a reality.
School Resource Officers
Police officers were not always an active part of the educational community. Time notes that when the concept of the school resource officer (SRO) emerged in the 1950s, there were fewer than 100 police officers working on American school grounds.
The role of SROs remained fairly limited for the ensuing decades, with an emphasis on event security and parking lot management. But the tough-on-crime political culture of the 1980s led to a surge in SRO ranks. With juvenile crime rates spiking, SROs became an increasingly common presence, particularly in urban schools.
Then, on April 20th, 1999, two Columbine High School students undertook a shooting spree in which they killed twelve of their classmates and one teacher before taking their own lives. The Colorado massacre signaled the beginning of a new era in school security, one in which the specter of deadly violence seemed to be greater than ever before. A horrifying litany of school shootings have followed, from the Virginia Tech shooting that claimed 33 lives in 2007 to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, which claimed 28 victims, 20 of them between the ages of six and seven.
Though the school safety landscape is pocked by such incidences, mass shootings are essentially random. The CDC’s School Associated Violent Death Study reveals that between 1% and 2% of all homicides among school-age children happen on school grounds. While mass shootings may cast a glaring light on school violence, students do face other more patterned risks specific to the school setting.
A 2013 nationwide survey by the CDC revealed that about 24.7% of all high school students had been in a physical fight in the 12 months prior to the survey. 17.9% reported bringing a weapon to school in just the prior 30 days, and 19.6% reported being victimized by bullying on school property.
This combination of mass national tragedies and daily patterned risks forms a real and pressing challenge for those charged with the responsibility of keeping our children safe during school hours. One response to this challenge has been a steady uptick in the number of police officers present on school grounds. The New York Times noted in 2009 that roughly 17,000 officers walked school halls in 2009. This, the article noted, represented a substantial expansion of the in-school policing program in just the ten years since Columbine.
The National Center for Education Statistics suggests that this number increased dramatically in just the last few years, particularly in the wake of Sandy Hook. Between 2013 and 2014, 43% of all public schools in the U.S.—63% of middle and 64% of high schools—were visited or patrolled by SROs. The National Center places the total at 46,000 full-time and 36,000 part-time officers, dispatched to various duties like supervising lunchrooms, promoting drug awareness, and even coaching sports.
Naturally, the safety risks associated with public school education—particularly in urban communities impacted by crime, poverty, drugs, and gang violence—suggest there is a compelling need for this police presence. Implemented properly, the SRO program should function both as a line of defense against criminal behavior for those students who’ve come to school to learn, and as a bridge between law enforcement officers and their communities. Daily headlines depicting violence between officers and citizens underscore just how desperately such a bridge is needed.
Unfortunately, a recent string of disturbing events involving SROs is undermining both of these imperatives. As stories and viral videos surface, documenting inappropriate use of force, poor discretion, and excessive application of criminal enforcement tactics, the role of SROs as a positive presence in school communities has been deeply damaged.
The result is a scenario that endangers the safety and well-being of school-age children while undercutting the ability of officers to effectively police in schools and in the broader communities that contain them.
High Profile Incidences
Increasingly, observers are being moving to ask whether police officers make schools safer or whether they merely compound the threat of violence that permeates so many schools. At debate.org, a survey finds that respondents are pretty sharply divided on the matter. 53% believe that police officers make schools safer while the remaining 47% believe that police do not belong in public schools.
Whether this is a fair assessment or merely a matter of public perception, the fact that respondents are so evenly spilt on the matter suggests that police officers have a steep uphill climb toward being perceived as a positive presence in our schools. The following incidences have only steepened this climb:
The Brownie Incident: Collingswood, NJ—June 2016
As noted above, the brownie incident was prompted when a third-grader misconstrued a classmate’s remark as being racist. It ended with a confrontation between a police officer and a 9-year-old boy.
But the events that led to this confrontation actually began back in May. It was then that the Police Department, school officials, and representatives of the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office met to discuss police involvement in school disciplinary matters. According the Police Chief Kevin Carey, schools were instructed to contact the police for incidences even “as minor as a simple name-calling incident that the school would typically handle internally.” Carey insists that these instructions were handed down from the Prosecutor’s Office in spite of vociferous objection both from the police chief and schools Superintendent Scott Oswald.
This aggressive intervention by the county’s criminal justice apparatus did not appear to be prompted by any particular event, nor warranted by any existing pattern of rising criminality in Collingswood’s elementary schools. Yet, estimates Superintendent Oswald, officers had been dispatched, on average, five times a day, every day in the month following that May 25th meeting. This is quite the deployment of resources for a district of roughly 1,875 students.
The brownie incident brought light to the new zero-tolerance policy approach, and, predictably, invoked outrage among parents. But it turns out that the new policy wasn’t simply misusing police resources. It was also misusing municipal resources. Officers were instructed to report nearly every incident occurring on school grounds to Child Protection and Permanency. This means that the parents of the child at the center of the brownie brouhaha received a phone call from social services later that day. It also means that somewhere in the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, the young student who was victimized by this incident has a permanent file with his name on it.
Four-Year Old Felon: Greene County, VA—Oct. 2014
As it happens, the brownie kid wasn’t setting any records. The title for youngest student ever arrested on school grounds probably belongs to a four-year-old from the Nathaneal Greene Primary School.
According to reports, the child in question caused a disturbance in his kindergarten classroom, throwing blocks, climbing over desks and taking a few swings at both the principal and the director of special education. Unable to restore order to the classroom, the principal called for the sheriff.
The sheriff, also reportedly unable to calm the child, placed him in handcuffs, put him in the back of a squad car, and hauled him off to jail. When his parents arrived at the school to retrieve him, they were sent to the sheriff’s office, where they found their son in leg shackles. The child has been suspended from school indefinitely and reportedly suffers nightmares as a result of his run-in with the law.
Excessive Force: Columbia, South Carolina—Oct. 2015
A 16-year-old female student from Columbia, South Carolina was said to be behaving disruptively in class. She refused multiple requests by her teacher to put away her cell-phone and eventually “became verbally disrespectful.”
She consequently refused the teacher and assistant principal’s multiple orders to remove herself from the classroom. They eventually called in school resource officer Ben Fields. After the student refused his request to remove herself from class, he attempted to physically remove her from her chair. The result was a violent confrontation in which the frustrated officer threw the much smaller student across the classroom floor while commanding her to place her hands behind her back.
Fellow students captured much of the shocking confrontation on cell-phone cameras. The footage went viral, sparked public outrage, and resulted in Fields’ termination.
The incident raised serious questions about the training of school resource officers and cast an even darker shadow on the relationship between black students like the 16-year-old girl in question, and white law enforcement agents, like Fields. Most problematic, the incident resulted in a misdemeanor charge against the 16-year-old student, creating a new first-time offender in the eyes of the criminal justice system for engaging in a non-violent disruption of class.
Clock Boy: Irving, TX—Sept. 2015
An Irving, Texas boy named Ahmed Mohamed, inspired by his school’s STEM program, brought a homemade clock into class to show his teachers. One teacher, resolving incorrectly that it was a bomb, contacted school authorities. They, in turn, called the police.
According to a claim made by the boy’s family, the officers arriving on the scene failed to read the teenager his Miranda rights and consequently interrogated him alone for more than an hour. Ahmed’s claims also note that the officers betrayed thinly-veiled indications that racial profiling was at play when they arrested the 14-year-old science enthusiast.
It didn’t take very long for it to become eminently obvious that Mohamed’s homemade project was indeed just a clock. He was released, his clock was returned to him and he even received an invitation to the White House, where he met and enjoyed the praise of President Obama.
However, his parents indicate that Mohamed has been traumatized by the incident, that the unwanted publicity has given his name a negative and unfair association with terrorism.
Water Balloon Fight: Raleigh, NC—May 2015
Eight students from Enloe High School were arrested for engaging in a massive water balloon fight as part of a senior prank.
As one of only two states where 16–17 year olds are considered adults in the eyes of the law, each of the individuals now arrested for taking part in, or being suspected of taking part in, said water balloon fight will have a stain on their permanent record. The events in Raleigh don’t just reinforce the absurdity of employing criminal force for all disciplinary matters. It also points to a layered and insidious sociological problem.
In contexts like North Carolina, racial disparity is said to be a major variable in how students are treated by law enforcement. In Wake County, for instance, though black students make up only 39% of the population, they comprise 76% of short-term suspensions and 92% of long-term suspensions. Absent any evidence that black students are misbehaving more frequently or more severely, they are receiving the brunt of the disciplinary attention. In 2015, for instance, 40% of black students caught with cellphones were suspended while the same was true for only 17% of white students committing the same offense.
The water balloon incident presented fairly stark evidence of these biases in action as a group of non-criminal, non-violent black teenagers were handled violently by officers and treated as criminal offenders by the county’s juvenile justice system.
The School-to-Prison Pipeline
The racial bias seen in North Carolina’s SRO program is reflective of similar patterns nationwide. According to Education World, “While black students made up 16 percent of U.S. public school enrollment during the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which federal data are available, they represented 27 percent of those referred to law enforcement by schools and 31 percent of those who were subject to school-related arrests.”
These numbers are deeply imbalanced but not surprising. Sarah Camiscoli, an educator and member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC), points to a troubling irony. She observes that “What we’ve seen is that when … school shootings happen, they happen predominantly in communities that are more affluent. It’s not in schools that have a high demographic of young people of color. But when these conversations start, the first schools that they want to increase security in or put these officers in are low-income communities where the demographic [is] people of color.”
This points to a vicious cycle underlying the SRO program. Schools concentrated in impoverished urban communities are far more susceptible to gun violence, gang conflict, and drug dealing. But they are also far more susceptible to behavioral and disciplinary challenges, many of which are the consequence of sociological conditions like broken families, incarceration, and malnutrition. Evidence suggests that in many instances, the SRO program may only be exacerbating these challenges.
The Southern Poverty Law Center points out that students in schools where SROs are stationed are five times as likely to be arrested than students in schools without SROs. And these arrests frequently occur for minor infractions. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 260,000 students were referred to law enforcement during the 2011-2012 school year and 92,000 were subjected to school-based arrests.
Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, Dennis Parker argues that “law enforcement in schools should be strictly limited to enforcement of criminal laws and not school discipline policies.”
But this has proven a serious challenge of discretion. The result is a sometimes indistinguishable line between matters which call for police intervention and those which call for the stern hand of an experienced educator.
The incidences outlined here above are joined by a host of others that demonstrate the physical danger that poorly trained or impulsive police officers can pose to students. The Washington Post points to a case from last June when a Florida officer was arrested and charged with child abuse for slamming a 13-year-old student to the ground. In August, the ACLU sued a Kentucky sheriff caught handcuffing disabled students on camera. And in September, school police in Birmingham, Alabama were charged with excessive and unconstitutional force for routinely pepper-spraying students for minor infractions, including a pregnant student who was so-disciplined for crying in the hallway.
This underscores the immediate danger that a blurring line between criminal and disciplinary matters can pose to school-age children. And this blurring line is an increasingly popular school policy orientation. According to the Washington Post, nearly 70% of school police officers report to being regularly involved in disciplinary maters.
But the blurring line is not just an anecdotal problem that leads to occasionally inappropriate use of force. Viral videos tell a visceral and disturbing story. But even more problematic are the patterned ways in which the blurring of this line can actually deepen the sociological challenges facing urban youths. For many young students, confrontations with SROs can lead to their first brushes with the criminal justice system. Students who might be treated as behavioral challenges in affluent suburban schools, and thus punished within the context of a school’s internal disciplinary mechanisms, are instead shuttled into the juvenile justice or criminal justice systems when attending urban and predominantly non-white schools.
A study by the Washington University Law Review reveals that the odds of a student who has committed a low-level offense being referred to law enforcement are between 1.38 and 1.83 times greater in schools where there is an SRO presence. This means that students in many urban communities already crippled by high incarceration rates are likelier to land in juvenile detainment for committing behavioral transgressions that might land a suburban child a week’s detention.
Time reports that students who have had such run-ins with the law become inherently more likely to drop out, struggle for employment, and spend their lives in and out of jail. In far too many instances, the minor offenses that lead students to run-ins with SROs pale in comparison to the lifelong punishments dealt them.
These patterns have a palpable and destructive impact on the communities surrounding impacted schools and they widen the chasm of trust between officers and residents.
Building Community Trust
SROs are often among the most visible and accessible police officers in the community. This fact alone means they steward an important responsibility. As the liaison between the community and the department, the impression that an SRO leaves on his or her students will have a permeating effect on how members of the community perceive police officers in a more general sense.
Headlines and viral videos make it impossible for us to honestly deny the high level of tension that persists between police officers and residents in too many communities. This is especially true in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Evidence of racial biases in school policing threaten only to inflame these tensions, especially as children are conditioned to distrust police from an early age.
Healing the tension between communities and police officers must begin in school. There are examples of SROs who routinely work to make the lives of students not only safer but better. In Carroll County, Virginia, for instance, community leaders describe the relationship between officers and students as a deeply positive one. The officers on duty do everything from providing security at sporting events to sharing breakfast with kindergarteners. What distinguishes their relationship with the student community is a clear and distinct line between disciplinary and legal matters.
School Superintendent Dr. Strader Blankenship indicated that “Right from the beginning we were very clear about who’s role was what. SROs didn’t step in school-related issues but would be on hand for legal issues. I always saw the opposite (from being pushed into the legal system) from the kids relating to the SROs. Our SROs have frankly been our best counselors. They listen and sometimes give advice. It’s very personality driven. The SROs we had and do have are very personable.”
The police department viewed the relationship in similar terms. The department’s sheriff had himself served as an SRO and recognized the importance that personality and temperament play in assigning the right officers. The sheriff and his officers all agree that one must truly love and understand children to do this job. They also view this relationship as a foundation for more positive community relations between police and their citizenry at large.
Of course, there are dedicated SROs who do the job for the right reasons and from the right disposition. Unfortunately, their positive example is not alone sufficient to disrupt the more patterned failures in school policing. This disruption must occur before officers come into contact with our children, at the screening and training stages of their professional development.
The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) disputes the rising tide of anti-SRO sentiment. NASRO Executive Director Mo Canady refers to a nearly 50% drop in juvenile arrests between 1994 and 2009, a period during which the number of officers on school grounds had increased significantly. Canada attributes this statistic to the U.S. Department of Justice and argues that while SROs can’t take full credit for these patterns (since much of this drop is likely to have occurred off school grounds), they deserve at least some.
Still, Canady concedes that training among officers on school grounds may well be an issue. He was quick to point out that incidences such as those in South Carolina and Texas involved officers who had not received their training from NASRO. He assured that “that’s not the way we train our officers.”
The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing says in-school policing is part of a growing trend, one that is supported directly by federal funding. It is conceivable that this rapid pace of growth is leading to a pattern of unpreparedness. Based on the figures cited by the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of active-duty full time SROs on patrol has ballooned over the last decade. High-profile incidences pitting officers against students may suggest that the rising demand for SROs has pressed many into service without adequate training.
For instance, the Education Justice Alliance (EJA), writing on conditions in North Carolina, characterizes the state’s requirements for becoming an SRO as insufficient. The Alliance charges that in Wake County, for instance (home of the water balloon incident), the only requirement for becoming a school resource officer is to be a certified law enforcement officer. SROs who work directly with students are not required to “demonstrate a documented history of positive work with children and youth, a track record free of incidents of excessive force, discrimination, or other forms of misconduct, or even possess a minimum number of years of experience as a law enforcement officer.”
This means that many of the SROs dispatched to schools lack experience either in providing safety or operating outside of a traditional criminal law setting. Video documentation of the officer who engaged the 16-year-old girl from South Carolina suggests an officer far more accustomed (and tempered) to dealing with hardened criminals than children. Stated simply, SROs in North Carolina are not given the proper training or background screening to serve schools safely and with proper discretion.
An article in the Atlantic reveals that this is not merely a reality in North Carolina but that evidence of inadequate training is apparent nationwide, that many officers lack the education to differentiate between disciplinary and criminal matters, lack the sensitivity training to control their own racial biases, and lack the background knowledge to distinguish students with disabilities from those with criminal intent.
To the latter point, the Atlantic reports that students with disabilities represent roughly 12% of the total student population but account for a quarter of those arrested in schools, and 75% of those that have been physically restrained on school grounds. These disparities underscore the real problem. As of 2015, only 12 states had laws specifying training requirements for classroom officers.
The Atlantic also points out that much of the training that does exist focuses on active shooter situations. An essential dimension of the job to be sure, this is training that SROs hope never to need in a real-world situation. And based on the statistics available to us, the vast majority of SROs will thankfully never find themselves in such a situation.
By contrast, the job does call for daily interaction with students, routine engagement of disciplinary incidences, and the ability to demonstrate discretion in navigating these incidences. Yet officers receive little to no training in these areas.
Given that so many SROs arrive on the job with little background beyond basic law enforcement certification, it is worth considering just how much attention is given to juvenile justice within the scope of that basic officer training. According to a 2012 study by Strategies for Youth, the majority of police academies do not provide recruits with any education in adolescent psychology and behavior. The study also pointed out that in 37 states, police academies devoted less than 1% of total training hours to juvenile justice issues. Five states do not require any training on juvenile justice issues at all.
Once officers are actually dispatched as SROs, roughly 80% say they do receive department-level training in juvenile justice issues, according to an International Association of Chiefs of Police survey. Another 75% say they receive training through state level agencies. That said, the majority of officers indicated that they received fewer than 10 hours of juvenile justice education and training across their entire careers.
Many departments outsource their training through organizations like NASRO, which instructs about 1500 officers a year. Participating officers will receive training in investigation protocols, active shooter situations, conflict resolution, trauma, collaboration with school administrators, bullying, and suicide prevention. NASRO describes itself as the world’s leader in school-based policing. Founded in 1991, the organization’s primary mission is to provide high-quality training to prospective SROs with a focus on school security and the safety of our children.
NASRO provides specific benefits to its members and offers an ongoing and multi-regional array of conferences, training courses, and support resources. Still, even as the leading organization in the training field, NASRO only has chapters in 33 U.S. States. Moreover, while its internal leadership espouses the value of NASRO training—and its importance in preventing the kind of high-profile incidences that have been outlined in this account—there are no nationwide mandates requiring prospective SROs to join or employ its resources.
As such, NASRO’s presence varies from state to state. In South Carolina, for instance police officers are required to complete basic training by either NASRO or the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy before they are allowed to serve in schools. However, according to Canady, the state’s regulatory commission on SRO training programs has never formally certified NASRO for service in South Carolina. This means that here, as in many other states, training through NASRO is voluntary. As a consequence, Canady said that his organization rarely if ever trains officers from South Carolina.
The violent incident involving Officer Fields and the 16-year-old girl demonstrates exactly what can occur in the absence of such a framework. It was this that prompted the residents of the Columbia community in which the incident occurred to approach the Strategies For Youth organization for help.
Strategies For Youth is a national organization with the goal of improving interactions between police officers and young people. The organization provides school-specific SRO training, including absolutely essential education of the specifics of brain development during adolescence and young adulthood. In addition to reducing the likelihood of conflict, this provides officers with a strong cognitive understanding of the core differences between underaged disciplinary infractions and criminal behavior.
The organization drafted a series of recommendations and outlined a training program that would have cost the Columbia police department $75,000. When residents delivered the proposal to the sheriff’s office, they were met with silence. Though a federal investigation into the Officer Ben Fields’ behavior is underway, there is no indication that South Carolina or the Columbia police department will be taking the necessary steps to prevent such an event from recurring.
Departments like the LAPD provide a strong contrast. In Los Angeles, SROs are required to receive both in-house training on school district policies and procedures, and 40 hours of SRO training through the state police academy. The department also recently provided a mandatory seminar for all officers on how to avoid implicit bias.
Programs in cities like San Francisco have worked to ensure that SROs are not involved in disciplinary matters and that incidences are handled using a graduated-response system (as opposed to a zero-tolerance reflex).
Denver has taken similar steps to differentiate criminal and disciplinary matters. In addition, Denver educators and administrators are trained to handle most disciplinary matters without involving SROs. SROs, in turn, receive comprehensive training on school-specific issues like child psychology and best practices for improving school climate.
These big cities provide a positive model for other communities, but they also underscore core inconsistencies in SRO training and policy orientation. What ultimately emerges from this discussion is a patchwork of policy approaches that varies not just from state to state but from department to department and school to school. While the challenges and parameters of school policing in Los Angeles or Denver may differ from those required in Columbia, South Carolina or Collingswood, New Jersey, the absence of a universal training standard leaves too many policy gaps. Far too many states, departments and districts offer startling evidence of training programs that are either ineffective or downright nonexistent.
Universal Training Standards
The nationwide landscape for SRO training is riddled with gaps and inconsistencies. As it stands today, there are no federally-approved standards regarding SRO training. Evidence increasingly suggests that there should be. In 2015, the United States Department of Justice issued a statement of interest regarding a case in which an SRO handcuffed two disabled Kentucky students, ages 8 and 9, for behavior infractions arising from their disabilities.
In its statement, the Department cited its concern and authority in the matter, indicating that “This litigation implicates the rights of children in schools to be free from unconstitutional police seizures, the rights of children with disabilities to be free from disability-based discrimination, and the rights of children to be free from civil rights violations that lead to the cycle of harsh school discipline and law enforcement involvement known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The United States is in a unique position to aid the Court in addressing these issues because of the authority granted to the Attorney General under the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (“Section 14141”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
The Department’s interest in this matter should signal an opportunity for a more far-reaching collaboration with both the Department of Education and NASRO. That a unified set of training standards, expectations, and certifications are not required for an officer to make the leap from the streets to the school hallways makes little practical or philosophical sense. In addition to threatening the safety and wellbeing of the very students they are dispatched to protect, the officers themselves are done a great disservice. Inadequate training makes SROs more vulnerable to both injury and infraction.
Practical, appropriate, and well-informed basic training requirements must come from a qualified federal advisory group that brings together representatives of law enforcement, education, and the SRO profession. In order for SROs to truly serve their schools and their communities, these training requirements must be mandated at the federal level. All municipal and state-informed training programs should be expected to meet specific conditions, including comprehensive psychological screening, a minimum number of basic training hours, a regulated program for ongoing education, and clear guidance on the issues that must be covered.
If the idea of federal intervention makes you itchy, you can be forgiven. Washington DC’s recent record in the education sector is debatable at best. But widespread inconsistency in school policing presents a genuine danger to our children. The federal government must be given the authority to at least ensure that schools and police departments are meeting certain basic criteria.
It is equally important that localities are given the authority to craft training according to their own unique realities. Urban officers will experience a different set of conditions than will rural or suburban SROs. Any federal intervention would be to the end of shaping basic and minimum standards while allowing curricular flexibility at the state and local level. Federal authority should also extend to the creation of a federal commission that certifies local and state programs as having met its criteria. In lieu of dictating approach or curriculum, a federal authority would provide parameters, inspections, guidance and, where needed, enforcement.
Susan Mizner, a disability counselor for the ACLU, provides a basic framework for what the federally-mandated training regime might look like.
She suggests that there are at least three levels of training that all officers should have, at a minimum, before they are truly qualified for the unique challenges of school policing. First, she points out that officers must understand their role more clearly.
Mizner warns against blurring the line between safety and criminal enforcement, reinforcing the notion that educators are often too quick to appeal to on-site SROs in situations that have traditionally been the disciplinary province of teachers, principals, and guidance counselors. Mizner argues that teaching school personnel—both teachers and SROs—to differentiate between disciplinary matters and safety concerns should be the very first level of training.
Once this distinction has been established, Mizner suggests that officers require better training in deescalation, including the use of diversionary tactics in the place of commands for compliance. Clearly cases like the one involving a 16-year-old South Carolina girl are a demonstration of what happens when an officer fails to deescalate. Issuing commands to the student created a confrontation in which the officer ultimately lost impulse control and infused an otherwise non-violent confrontation with force, violence, and unpredictability.
Mizner also calls for training that helps officers recognize students with disabilities and which provides instruction on handling this population’s unique and varied needs. All of these recommendations underscore the need to rethink the concept of zero-tolerance. This policy orientation, according to the Department of Education, provides officers with a clear legal foundation for treating disciplinary matters as criminal ones and promotes impulsive confrontation without consideration of confirmed biases against disabled, non-white, and LGBTQ students.
Of course, in the absence of zero-tolerance policies, officers would be required to take a much more nuanced approach to student interaction. To this end, the EJA outlines a few basic areas in which all school resource officers should have meaningful education, instruction, and training:
- positive behavior management;
- mental health issues, disabilities, adolescent development and psychology, and recognizing symptoms of trauma, abuse, and exposure to violence and the behaviors such exposure tends to produce;
- effects of court involvement and interaction with the juvenile/criminal justice systems;
- information about alternatives to arrests and court referrals, including restorative justice and referrals to community-based resources (e.g., mental health, drug treatment, mentoring, afterschool programs);
- cultural competency;
- de-escalation strategies for students without using physical force and using safe restraint techniques; and
- constitutional standards for searches and interrogations of students.
At present, no sweeping federal mandate exists to ensure that SROs are receiving training in each of these areas. However, efforts are more recently underway to at least bring greater guidance to the issue.
In 2012, the Dignity in Schools campaign produced A Model Code on Education and Dignity, which approaches school-based policing as a human rights issue. Its recommendations on safety and discipline include clear guidelines for how to limit police intervention, achieve accountability, deescalate confrontations, understand adolescent psychology, and prioritize restorative justice.
The Departments of Education and Justice issued their own joint advisory in January of 2012 advising stakeholders on how to avoid discriminatory school policing practices. President Obama joined the effort with a December 2014 initiative that created the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. This aims to establish best practices for police-community relationships.
For departments and districts that wish to begin the process of reform today, these resources offer a starting point. But without meaningful regulatory oversight and a universalization of these standards, the risk of incidence remains unacceptably high. Also unacceptably high is the hurdle that juvenile criminal prosecution places in front of countless children as they struggle to make a brighter future for themselves.
Busting Up the Pipeline
In 2003, Steven C. Teske, chief judge of Georgia’s Clayton County juvenile court, initiated a process to eliminate zero-tolerance disciplinary measures in his district. Working together with schools, law enforcement agents and other stakeholders, he pushed for a way to limit suspensions and arrests for misdemeanor acts like disorderly conduct. The county reported that by 2011-2012, it had seen an 83% drop in the number of students referred to juvenile court.
This substantial drop did not come with any apparent spikes in behavioral difficulties, suggesting that schools and SROs are entirely capable of handling the vast majority of disciplinary problems in-house. Educators and SROs alike must be given not just the training to differentiate between behavioral and criminal matters, but also the authority. Students using cell-phones against school rules don’t belong in handcuffs, police cars, or courtrooms. Educators and SROs alike must be in a position to make that assessment.
Moreover, there is almost never a situation where it makes sense to call the police on a child under the age of 11. Putting aside only the most extreme cases in which a student is at risk of harming himself or others, law enforcement has no place in elementary school discipline.
Behavioral challenges are a part of education. Likewise, disciplinary measures, policies and procedures are critical in any school setting. However, students are still children. As such, impulse control, the decision-making process, the ability to check one’s emotions, and a capacity to fully consider the consequences of one’s actions are all still in the early stages of their development. Young students are prone to mistakes, to irrational behavior, and to short-sighted decisions.
Entering these individuals into the criminal justice system for such mistakes is to impose long-term consequences for actions which might be the consequence of disability, instability at home, or even just momentary youthful indiscretion. A single encounter with an SRO for any one of these reasons could have terrible life-changing consequences for troubled students and bright young learners alike. Zero-tolerance does not differentiate.
But it is incumbent upon us to differentiate, to recognize that students are not criminals and that disciplinary infractions are not crimes. When students break the law on school grounds, that distinction fades, as scenarios like Columbine demonstrate in vivid and devastating detail. But as trained officers of the law, SROs must have a clear sense of where that line is drawn. Anything less puts our children at risk.
This places the onus not just on police departments and SROs to train effectively, but on schools to discipline more effectively. Part of this process means recognizing the root causes in students who present recurrent disciplinary challenges and finding the proper resources to accommodate their needs. As student arrest demographics indicate, factors like disability and family circumstances play into the risk of juvenile incarceration.
For students whose behavioral difficulties stem from disabilities, special education would be substantially more constructive than criminal prosecution.
For students whose behavioral difficulties stem from family problems, community support resources would be substantially more constructive than criminal prosecution.
For students whose behavioral difficulties stem from malnutrition, anxiety disorder, or substance abuse problems, counseling and intervention would be substantially more constructive than criminal prosecution.
For students whose behavioral difficulties stem from negative academic experiences, referral to technical or vocational school would be substantially more constructive than criminal prosecution.
You’ve probably noticed a theme here. For your average student, anything would be better than criminal prosecution. This approach does not produce any positive outcomes, either for those students impacted or for their communities.
As the SRO program continues to grow, it must also evolve. The role of the SRO is cast with far too much similarity to that of the street officer. This inevitably casts the student in the role of criminal. But the SRO must be more than a vessel for enforcement. The SRO must be a community leader, a caring adult, a compassionate presence, and an educator. If we can find a way to nurture trust and solidarity between officers and students, it could be the first true step to healing the wounds that persist between police officers and the communities they are meant to serve.
As noted above, there are countless superior alternatives to funneling students into juvenile justice courthouses and detention centers. Among the most overlooked alternatives may be the facilitation of technical or vocational training. In too many instances, behavioral problems may mask academic insecurities. In reality, not every student is meant to become a doctor or an accountant. Some may prove gifted mechanics, carpenters, or masons.
In an upcoming piece, we’ll explore the implications of pursuing technical and vocational alternatives for students who might otherwise find themselves flowing through the school-to-prison pipeline.