ACLU Report Examines Policing in Schools

By Mark Walsh — August 25, 2009 2 min read
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A growing number of student behavior problems in schools are being turned over to the police or juvenile justice systems when they ought to be treated as matters of school discipline, the American Civil Liberties Union says in a report out on Tuesday.

One possible reason, the report says, is the growth in the number of school resource officers--municipal police officers assigned full-time to schools or officers employed directly by larger districts.

The ACLU doesn’t address whether it is a good idea for such officers to be deployed in schools. But if they are, the report says, schools and police agencies should sign agreements that define officers’ roles and help respect the rights of students.

“Without sufficient guidelines, programs to deploy School Resource Officers into public schools may hamper effective policing as well as
effective pedagogy by unnecessarily criminalizing student misbehavior, alienating youth, and creating an adversarial environment in schools,” says the report, “Policing in Schools: Developing a Governance Document for School Resource Officers in K-12 Schools.”

The report suggests that a growing number of children are being arrested or referred to the juvenile justice system over school discipline issues, and it says that minority students are disproportionately represented in such cases. Some extreme cases are cited, including that of a 16-year-old girl who was arrested after dropping a piece of birthday cake on the school cafeteria floor and failing to clean it up to the satisfaction of the school resource officer.

Improper school arrests can lead students to drop out, the report contends.

The ACLU makes numerous recommendations in a proposed model agreement for school districts and police authorities:

* School resource officers should be responsible for criminal issues, not school discipline. Even matters that might technically be criminal violations, such as trespassing, disruption, and fighting without weapons should be treated as disciplinary matters unless there is an immediate threat to safety.

* Students should not be arrested in school unless safety is an issue or a judicial warrant requires it.

* School resource officers should search students or their belongings and lockers only when they have probable cause that the search will turn up evidence of a crime. (The report notes that court rulings are unsettled about whether such officers must meet only the lesser “reasonable suspicion” standard required for searches conducted by school officials.)

* School resource officers should receive training in such areas as child and adolescent development, children with disabilities, and “cultural competency.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.