To the Editor:
In their Commentary “Taking Safety Too Far?” (Feb. 24, 2010), Johanna Wald and Lisa Thurau write that school police and administrators “forge uneasy alliances that are often based more on personalities and temperaments than on any set of objective criteria.” Disciplinary decisions made by these two groups, the authors continue, “can be idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and highly confusing to students.”
These conclusions do not reflect the realities of day-to-day K-12 school-based policing in America. From 2001 through 2004, I conducted four annual surveys of more than 700 school police officers per year. Findings revealed that they performed more preventative, proactive school safety functions than reactive activities (including arrest).
Crimes in schools have historically been underreported to law enforcement. For each case of over-the-top, questionable disciplinary and police action, there are other cases of dangerously poor judgment in which crimes in schools have gone unreported and/or underreported.
The authors also refer to “harsh” and “heavy-handed tactics” such as “zero-tolerance codes.” But what exactly is the universally accepted definition of “zero tolerance”? Is zero tolerance viewed as any suspensions, expulsions, or arrests? What threshold must be crossed for an incident to move from acceptable discipline to zero tolerance? What specific crimes constitute an acceptable lawful arrest, and are there school crimes that should be ignored?
There is no mass conspiracy called “zero tolerance.” The vast majority of school administrators strive for firm, fair, and consistent discipline applied with good common sense. Unfortunately, anecdotal cases that make headlines often lack the common-sense factor.
To suggest that educators are turning over discipline and control of their schools to police is absurd. As a whole, school-resource-officer programs function in a preventative, not reactive, manner. Officers build positive working relationships not only with administrators, but also, most importantly, with students.
Improving police and educator relationships, clearly defining disciplinary vs. law-enforcement roles, and providing better police and administrator training are always encouraged. But to characterize school police and administrators in the way this essay does is inaccurate and misleading. Such a skewed portrayal is a disservice to educators and officers who work hard to fairly enforce rules while maintaining safe and secure learning environments.
Kenneth S. Trump
National School Safety and Security Services
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week as Essay on School Safety Paints a False Picture