Race and Equity

Obama administration to schools: Stop using police to enforce rules

School-based police officers should mentor and support students, not push them into prison

Los Angeles School police officer Henry Anderson on his beat at Robert E. Peary Middle School in Gardena.

Two weeks ago, civil rights groups in Richmond, Virginia, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the treatment of black students in local schools. The district’s black students are disproportionately targeted by police officers who work in the schools, the complaint alleges. One student in the complaint, a 13-year-old with disabilities named J.R., was violently restrained on the ground by a school-based police officer for allegedly clenching his hands into fists.

One week ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a similar complaint with the Department of Education and Department of Justice on behalf of students in Pinellas, Florida. Many kids in Pinellas County Schools are victims of discriminatory police practices, the complaint alleges, under which black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately arrested and subjected to police methods like pepper spray.

These complaints come nearly a year after a school-based police officer at Spring Valley High School flipped a student out of her chair in South Carolina; half a year after a school-based police officer was caught hitting a child in Baltimore; and five months after a video showed a school-based police officer in Texas body-slamming a 12-year-old girl to the ground.

These troubling examples are just some of the ways that putting police in schools can have disastrous effects. On Thursday, the Department of Education and Department of Justice announced a new tool designed to address some of these issues.

Over the past two decades, the number of police officers stationed in K-12 schools has risen dramatically in the name of student safety. The federal government has contributed to this rise in school-based police officers ― also called school resource officers, or SROs ― by funding between 100 and 150 such positions each year through DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The vast majority of the roughly 19,000 school resource officer positions in K-12 institutions, however, are funded on the state or local level.

On Thursday, the COPS office announced that it will require local police agencies to follow a new rubric if they want to receive federal funding for the hiring of school resource officers. Although only a small sliver of school resource officers are funded through the federal government, leaders say they hope the new rubric will guide school districts and police agencies across the country in developing and evaluating their school resource officer programs.

The rubric, called the Safe School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding, and Respect, recommends that school districts and police agencies develop formalized partnerships before placing police in schools. These partnerships should clearly delineate the role of school police officers and use data to evaluate the effectiveness of existing partnerships. The rubric also recommends that agencies effectively train school resource officers on how to work with kids, and teach them about implicit bias and childhood development.

Another rubric describes how state leaders can use policy to support these goals.

“The primary role of the SRO should be to build trust between students and law enforcement and to keep students safe,” U.S. Education Secretary John King said Wednesday during a call with reporters. “But in some schools, SROs have become the disciplinarians, instead of better equipping teachers to address misbehavior and help students learn and grow from their mistakes.”

“Some schools are simply turning misbehaving students over to SROs,” King went on. “This can lead to citations or arrest, and set students on a path to dropping out of school or even to prison.”

The federal agencies also sent letters to various leaders of higher education institutions and college police chiefs, urging them to think deeply about the role of security on campus and to consider the recommendations of the President’s Task Force On 21st Century Policing.

“Beyond K-12 schools, the national issues related to community and police relations, racial justice and officer and public safety also reverberate on college campuses,” King said. “Campus police face many of the same challenges as their local police counterparts.”

School resource officers typically report to a commanding officer at a local police agency. Most states do not require these officers to get any special training in working with kids before they’re placed in schools. As a result, adolescent misbehavior in schools is sometimes met with serious, adult consequences. An August analysis from The Huffington Post and The Hechinger Report found that SROs have used stun guns or Tasers on at least 84 students in the past five years. Indeed, research shows that just the presence of a police officer in school increases the likelihood that a student will be referred to law enforcement for any one of a range of behaviors, including theft and vandalism.

However, when given the proper training and support, school police officers can serve as positive mentors and play an important role in school communities, King said. There is little data on how school resource officers tangibly affect school safety. Still, Ronald Davis, director of the COPS program, cited school resource officers as an example of the type of community policing that helps build trust between families and law enforcement.

“We know the relationships work,” Davis told reporters during Wednesday’s call. “This has been the principal of community policing for three generations, that police and community working together always works better.”

Unlike most of our stories, this piece is an exclusive collaboration and may not be republished.

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Rebecca Klein

Rebecca Klein is the editor of education news for The Huffington Post. See Archive