School Climate & Safety

After That Viral SRO Story, What Districts Should Know About Police Conduct in Schools

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 23, 2019 4 min read
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National attention is centering on a Florida school resource officer’s arrest of two young students, including a 6-year-old girl who reportedly kicked another student while having a temper tantrum.

The incident occurred at a charter school, the Lucious & Emma Nixon Academy. Officer Dennis Turner, who had reportedly been disciplined for excessive use of force, was fired late Monday after outrage poured in from around the country.

The Orange County school district maintains its own school police force, but Turner appears to have been a city police officer hired as an SRO, possibly to meet the mandates of a new Florida school safety law requiring schools to have an armed staff member in every school as a way to prevent mass shootings or minimize the harm caused by an armed assailant. In 2018, the city of Orlando and county agreed to hire an SRO that the city’s 13 charters would share, according to WFTV.

And nationally, more and more schools are hiring school resource officers: 45 percent of American schools report having an SRO, and there are more than 52,000 of them in U.S. schools. Fear of shootings in schools is a major driver of the rise in police in K-12 settings, but few SROs will ever encounter a shooter in their school building.

While research on their impact is still fairly thin, many groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and multiple NAACP chapters argue that unintended consequences of more police in schools in schools often fall hardest on students of color, criminalizing their behavior and pushing them into a “school to prison” pipeline. The Orlando situation is a good example of their concerns. (At least one of the Florida children who was arrested is black.)

With all that said, there are best practices for districts and schools for setting clear expectations for SROs’ duties and behavior.

Know who you’re hiring. Many SROs are “on loan” from their city or county police department. (Some larger districts have their own police forces.) It’s not clear how many SROs are subjected to additional background checks before they are assigned to schools, but at the very least, a history of discipline issues or other warning signs in an officer’s personnel file ought to preclude him or her from being assigned to work with children.

Enforce specific training requirements. Training is no guarantee that something won’t go wrong, but it is an opportunity to expose SROs to some of the unique challenges and opportunities of the role—including how students with behavioral disabilities react, how to serve as a mentor or guide, and the disparities that black students face in terms of discipline and suspension rates.

SRO training is not universal. According to the Education Commission of the States, 29 states currently specify some topics that must be covered in SRO training. But the requirements are vague or defer to other state bodies to determine their content. Of the state policies, Maryland’s is often highlighted for its specificity. Among other things, officers have to know about de-escalation tactics, disability awareness, and implict bias, with attention to racial and ethnic disparities. (A recent Education Week Research Center survey found that most SROs said they’d had experience with de-escalation techniques, but far fewer had training on how to work with special education students, recognize childhood trauma, or understand adolescent brain development.)

National groups like the National Association of School Resource Officers, also offer 40-hour SRO training, and some of the state policies specify similar minimum training hours.

Write a specific MOU outlining the SRO’s duties. A memorandum of understanding should spell out exactly what SROs are responsible for, and where their authority stops. This provides clarity, and, in a worst-case scenario, it is also part of the district’s legal liability—a document courts can rely on to determine whether an SRO’s behavior was appropriate or not.

One of the most important pieces of the MOU is whether an SRO can be called upon to enforce the school or district’s discipline policies. Many experts argue that SROs should handle only criminal activity at school, and while dealing with infractions of the disciplinary code should be administrators’ responsibility.

Some MOUs go even further: New York City’s new MOU, for example, explicitly says that SROs should avoid criminal procedures for most misdemeanors and should only arrest students at school for violent offenses or felonies.

Consider accountability tools. It didn’t get a lot of attention, but one of the more eye-opening findings in a recent federal school safety data dump was that the use of police body cameras saw a remarkable increase between 2015-16 and 2017-18.

The evidence on use of bodycams in general is mixed—they don’t help much if officers don’t turn them on—but they are theoretically one of the few ways districts can get a sense of the nature of student and police interactions in school.

Read more from Education Week’s look at police in America’s schools.

Photo: A school resource officer in the Atlanta school system, where officials have worked to establish clear guidelines and expectations for the role police play.—--Melissa Golden/Redux for Education Week-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.