The Washington Post reports that school resource officers (SRO) throughout the nation are facing intensifying scrutiny in the wake of an SRO’s violent take down of a student in a South Carolina classroom. Currently, there are 43,000 school resource officers and other sworn police officers, and an additional 39,000 security guards, working in the nation’s 84,000 public schools.The increased number of law enforcement personnel in public schools is attributable to the post-Columbine atmosphere where communities used whatever means possible to guard against threats from drugs, gangs and weapons.
However, having officers present in classrooms and cafeterias has created its own set of concerns — about the criminalization of typical teenage misbehavior, about the discriminatory enforcement of vague laws, and about the excessive use of physical force against children in school spaces where they should be able to feel safe. In the aftermath of the Spring Valley High School incident, some are calling for school districts to explicitly limit police officers’ law enforcement actions in school, while others are calling for schools to get rid of officers.
Officers and their supporters, on the other hand, point to the role that school police have played in keeping students safe. For example, SROs acting on a student’s tip disarmed another student who had brought a gun to his Utah school in 2014. Serious violent incidents, including rape, attempted rape, robbery and physical attack, occurred in an estimated 13% of U.S. schools in 2013-2014, according to federal data, with 26,000 serious violent incidents reported in those schools. Two percent of the nation’s schools reported fights involving a weapon.
Civil rights activists and many police officers, as well as the school resource officers group, agree that officers should not be involved in school discipline matters; that should be left to school staff. But nearly 70% of security personnel report that they are involved in discipline.
More than 64,000 students were arrested at school in 2011-2012, according to federal civil rights data, the most recent available with 30% of those arrests involved black students, although black students accounted for just 16% of the overall student population. In an effort to strike a balance between maintaining safety and avoiding criminalization of typical student misbehavior, some school districts have worked to clarify and limit the role that police officers play.
In San Francisco, the school board signed an agreement with police that limited school resource officers to intervening only in the most serious criminal cases, such as those involving weapons or serious bodily harm. During the past three years, the number of arrests inside schools has been cut in half, from close to 200 to about 90. Matt Haney, vice president of San Francisco’s school board, said that the district has not only reduced arrests, but also has invested in resources to help teachers and administrators create positive school climates in which students know that they are valued and that they have someone to talk to if they are troubled and need help.
Mo Canady, who heads the National Association of School Resource Officers, said that because of the nature of the South Carolina statute, school officials probably were justified in asking the sheriff’s deputy to intervene. “When I was a police officer, the way I had to respond to it was, I don’t write the laws,” Canady said. “I’m just hired to enforce them.”
Source: The Washington Post, 11/8/15, By Emma Brown
[Editor’s Note: In October 2015, Legal Clips summarized a decision by a federal district court in Alabama in J.W. v. Birmingham Bd. of Educ. holding that the school resource officers (SROs) that used chemical spray on students who were accused of minor offenses and offered no resistance to being detained (seized), violated those students’ Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. It also concluded that the SROs’ failure to decontaminate those students exposed to the spray violated their Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force. This summary is limited to a discussion of the district court’s holding regarding the Fourth Amendment claims of excessive force as to the initial spraying and decontamination.]