School Climate & Safety

Salt Lake City District to Outline Limits for School Police as Part of Settlement

By Evie Blad — March 17, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Salt Lake City schools and the city’s police departments signed a settlement with the ACLU Thursday in exchange for an agreement to end litigation related to how the schools and school-based officers treated students of color.

In signing the agreement, no party admitted liability, but the schools committed to increased training for educators related to discipline and to creating a detailed agreement that limits the roles of school-based officers. In a statement, the district said that work is already underway.

“The agreements stem from a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of students at West High School in Salt Lake City who were unlawfully detained and accused of participating in gang activity during a 2010 ‘gang sweep,’” the ACLU said in a new release. “The students were of Latino, African-American, or Pacific Island descent, even though students of color comprised just half the student body. They were rounded up, questioned, searched, and forced to be photographed holding signs describing alleged gang affiliation. Their information was then documented and entered into a police database, potentially subjecting them to future unwarranted police scrutiny.”

In the settlement, Salt Lake City schools committed to create an agreement with the police department that “clearly establishes the role and responsibilities” of police officers working in schools. The agreement will “clearly distinguish between disciplinary matters and criminal issues,” leaving discipline to school administrators.

“SLCSD employees should request the involvement of PD officers and/or SROs in criminal matters only when an SLCSD administrator determines it necessary to address a serious and immediate threat to the physical safety of students, school personnel, or the public, or when appropriate to address the criminal conduct of persons other than students,” the settlement says.

The agreement must also limit officers’ ability to arrest students on school property or at school-sponsored activities to times “when the officer has probable cause to believe that the student has been or is engaged in a crime that causes serious bodily injury or endangers the physical safety of students, school personnel, or others or when necessary to execute a warrant that cannot be effectively executed outside of school hours,” the settlement said.

In addition, the agreement will spell out the district’s role in selecting school-based officers employed by the police department, and it will require district leaders and police officials to meet twice a year to review student arrest data.

The district also committed to mandatory in-service training on topics like the appropriate roles of school resource officers and school administrators, juvenile court processes, adolescent development, mental health problems, conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques, cultural competency, and the rights of students. Under the settlement, the school system will update the portion of its discipline code related to gang activity to say that “wearing a specific color by itself won’t be cause for discipline, and just wearing a cross or Star of David without augmentation or alteration won’t be cause for discipline.”

The district released this statement about the settlement:

Salt Lake City School District began a concerted effort more than two years ago to develop a training program for its school administrators surrounding the issues of cultural awareness and disproportionate minority contact. The district put the training in motion in January 2016 with a vision to ensure that contact between police officers and students in school is appropriate and respectful. As part of that effort, we have collaborated with Salt Lake City Police Department, the Utah Board of Juvenile Justice, and others to clearly define the appropriate roles of school administrators and police officers in our schools. Moving forward, we will continue to work with the community and these partners to develop more culturally-sensitive practices in our schools and to continue to strengthen our relationships with the children and families of Salt Lake City."

Many of the terms of the settlement are similar to the types of best practices recommended by civil rights groups who have voiced concern in recent years about overly harsh treatment of students by school-based officers.

As I wrote after videos of violent interactions between school police in South Carolina and Baltimore spread online recently, civil rights organizations say incidents of excessive force and unnecessary arrests by school police are more common than many people realize. Unclear boundaries between routine school discipline and law enforcement issues create concerns, particularly for students of color, they said.

While black students made up 16 percent of U.S. public school enrollment during the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which federal data are available, they represented 27 percent of those referred to law enforcement by schools and 31 percent of those who were subject to school-related arrests.

Related reading:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.