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ACLU Says Districts Need Better Policing Policies

After the deadly shootings at Columbine High School 10 years ago, many school districts began beefing up the security presence on their campuses, adding what are often known as school resource officers.

Depending on state laws, such officers may or may not be sworn police officers, but in most cases, they have gone through police training. These officers, however, often lack experience in navigating the unique culture of public schools, and district administrators and school boards have rarely provided clear guidance through policy, according to a white paper released yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU says allowing school resource officers in buildings without guidelines on how to distinguish between minor disciplinary infractions and criminal offenses is having a disastrous effect on students.

The Birmingham, Ala., school district is among those singled out by the civil rights group, which notes that 19 percent of juvenile arrests resulting in court referrals were for school misconduct. Among those, 33 percent were for fights, 29 percent were for disorderly conduct, and 21 percent were for trespassing or harassment.

That district has launched a new volunteer program this fall to stave off arrests after logging 250 arrests in the first six months of last school year, often for minor offenses. A larger neighboring district had just 54 arrests.

The ACLU recommends that school districts develop a governance policy and includes a suggested policy in the white paper. The Clayton County, Ga., school district produced a report two years ago that led to new polices that reduced court referrals of misdemeanor issues by 59 percent.

Districts have had difficulty finding solutions for escalating community violence that spills over into schools. Even as states like Tennessee have examined the possibility of allowing school districts to have their own police forces, others are looking at how to balance the need for safe schools with a desire to avoid over-referring students to the criminal justice system, often increasing the likelihood many of these students will become dropouts.

Has your district created guidelines for how security and police officers interact with students? How do you balance safety with a desire not to increase the number of students with juvenile records?

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