Schooled Reporting on education

Kicking police off campus

Education | Districts debate the future of school resource officers
by Laura Edghill
Posted 6/10/20, 04:53 pm

Shelby Township, Mich., Deputy Chief of Police Mark Coil compares police officers who work in schools to the neighborhood cops of his grandfather and great-grandfather’s day.

“They walked the beat, and they knew Al owned the bakery and Sal owned the butcher shop, and they knew everybody well,” he said, noting that a school resource officer can fill the same community role. “He’s consistent. He’s there every day. And he knows his people because the school becomes his beat.”

Since the death of George Floyd after an arrest attempt on May 25 in Minneapolis—and the ensuing protests against police brutality nationwide—school districts across the country are considering getting rid of SROs and promising instead to spend millions of dollars on enhanced mental health services and social workers in their schools. School boards cite deteriorating relationships and a growing perception that SROs disproportionately single out minority students and stoke fear of law enforcement rather than ease it. School boards are weighing the future of in-school policing in major cities such as Denver and Los Angeles, the latter of which employs a force of about 400 SROs costing about $70 million a year.

School districts typically contract directly with their local police or sheriff’s departments for SRO services. Most try to work with a consistent officer so the school community can forge a trusting relationship with that individual. The officers provide on-site security and handle discipline issues that wander into criminal territory.

Some also serve as guest experts in classrooms, teaching on topics like drug awareness and how to practice risk avoidance. They assist students who need help reporting an assault or other incidents even if they happened outside of school. Coil said school districts work out the specifics with their individual SROs, capitalizing on their unique strengths and interests. Most importantly, he said, the officers serve as role models.

“When you have that conduit for the district and the child, and the families to point to and say, ‘That’s our guy, that’s our gal,’ that’s community outreach at its best,” Coil said.

But SROs have not always set the best examples. Last year, two were caught on video pushing a defiant high school girl to the ground in Florida and repeatedly slamming a middle school boy onto the floor in North Carolina. In 2015, parents sued an SRO in Kentucky for placing handcuffs above the elbows of an 8-year-old boy with special needs in response to a disciplinary problem.

Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, told The Atlantic in 2015 that such instances usually arise from a lack of school-specific education for the officer.

“The first thing I do is search our database to see ‘Did this person come through our training?’” Canady said. “And the answer is consistently ‘no.’”

The U.S. Department of Education tracks arrests and discipline referrals in schools. The most recent data is not yet available, but an analysis of the 2013-2014 school year reveals black students consistently had disproportionately high rates of arrests at school compared with their white classmates.

Students in the Minneapolis Public Schools have lobbied for years to dissolve the urban district’s relationship with its local police department, citing ongoing concerns about racial bias and profiling. Minneapolis Board of Education Chairwoman Kim Ellison credited persistent pressure from students for keeping the issue at the forefront. The board passed a resolution on June 2 canceling a $1 million contract between the school district and police department for 11 officers. It also charged the district superintendent with developing an alternate school safety plan by mid-August.

Portland, Ore., has wrestled over the presence of officers in its schools for years. Like Minneapolis, an already swelling student-led campaign crested with last week’s decision by the local school district to cut ties with the Portland Police Bureau.

Some of the city’s residents immediately raised concerns the move would leave schools vulnerable in the event of a violent act that required swift action to defuse. In May 2019 a quick-thinking SRO rushed and tackled a suicidal student who pulled a shotgun out from under his trench coat at one of the city’s schools. The incident developed in mere seconds—far too short of a time for local law enforcement to respond.

Canady called school districts’ breaks with police “a knee-jerk reaction” last week and cautioned that if they develop into a trend, it will be to the detriment of many communities.

“When it’s done right, the SRO program really is the epitome of community-based policing,” he said. “I hate to see the baby thrown out with the bathwater.”

Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber (file) Associated Press/Photo by Steve Helber (file) Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.

Falwell apologizes for tweet

Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. said he was sorry for a May 27 tweet in which he shared an image of a face mask emblazoned with a racially charged photo.

The image in question came from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page and showed an individual in blackface standing next to another person dressed as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The photo caused a scandal last year when it first surfaced, leading to calls for the Democratic governor to leave office. Falwell said he tweeted the photo in protest of the governor’s recent order requiring everyone to wear a face mask in indoor public settings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Three faculty members resigned in protest, and a Change.org petition calling for Falwell to apologize garnered more than 37,000 signatures. A letter signed by nearly three dozen African American Liberty alumni—including numerous pastors, ministry leaders, and even some current and former NFL players—accompanied the petition.

“I understand that by tweeting an image to remind all of the governor’s racist past, I actually refreshed the trauma that image had caused and offended some by using the image to make a political point,” Falwell tweeted on Monday. “Based on our long relationships, they uniformly understood this was not my intent, but because it was the result, I have deleted the tweet and apologize for any hurt my effort caused, especially within the African American community.”

The alumni stated in the letter they stood ready to meet with Falwell to counsel Liberty leadership on how to improve race relations at the university. —L.E.

Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon (file) Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon (file) Education Secretary Betsy DeVos

Lawsuits and more lawsuits

Attorneys general from more than a dozen states filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education on Thursday targeting updated Title IX regulations released the first week of May. The Education Department designed the changes to strengthen due process rights for those accused of sexual harassment and violence on college campuses while also shoring up support for victims.

The states claimed the new law conflicts with existing federal and state requirements. They also said they cannot meet the Aug. 14 deadline for implementation given the global pandemic. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, accused Education Department Secretary Betsy DeVos of unlawfully narrowing Title IX’s reach.

The American Civil Liberties Union also filed a suit against the Education Department on behalf of several nonprofit groups in May. The complaint argues the new rules unfairly shield people accused of sexual assault. —L.E.

Pomp and watercraft

A charter school in Florida made some serious waves on May 26 with its unusual Jet Ski graduation. Key West’s Somerset Island Prep outfitted its graduating high school seniors with life vests under their gowns and sent them out on personal watercraft to rendezvous with a boat, on which principal Tom Rompella waited. He handed the grads their diplomas using a long-handled grabber. The principal said the ceremony illustrated to his students that challenges, like this year’s pandemic, are meant to be overcome. —L.E.

Laura Edghill

Laura is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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  • JM
    Posted: Thu, 06/11/2020 07:35 am

    Schools were concerned after Columbine, about student protection. However outside officers don't know the lay of the building, the students, or the staff. Imagine a young youth pastor, with children of his own. His wife works at the school where the kids attend. He resigned the pastoral position and went to the academy to become a police officer. He worked through the municipal seniority system to become a regular officer. He volunteered to take the resource officer position. Imagine a foster parent who becomes a police resource officer in the school where his foster kids go. Actually it's real. The school boards are elected citizens, not career politicians. Both school systems, of the same county. It's how we do it in rural America. These officers wear a uniform, with a firearm, equipped for serious calls outside the school.

  •  CaptTee's picture
    CaptTee
    Posted: Thu, 06/11/2020 12:59 pm

    If you fire all the school resource officers, who are you going to call for an immediate responce?

  • Narissara
    Posted: Thu, 06/11/2020 02:23 pm

    Isn't it ironic that an incident carried out by students who idolized Hitler and had white supremacist leanings (Columbine) is what led to SRO's becoming so commonplace in the first place?  We used to call cops peace officers; now they're "law enforcement."  They're supposed to be there to protect the students the schools are entrusted with; enforcing discipline is what the teachers and school administrators are supposed to be doing.  They can't expect SRO's to step in where they fail; that just compounds the problem.  And substituting social workers for cops is no better.  Child protective services are plagued with the exact same problems of systemic racism and racial profiling.  

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