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Ferguson School Police Too Heavy-Handed With Students, Justice Department Says

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Two school resource officers employed by the Ferguson, Mo., police department to work in the city's schools engage in "police action that is unreasonable for a school environment," the U.S. Department of Justice found in an investigation of law enforcement practices in the St. Louis suburb.

The Justice Department released its review, which was completed as a response to last summer's police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, yesterday. Investigators' core finding about the agency—that officers engage in unfair, excessive practices and disproportionately target black people—trickles into all areas of the department, including its actions in schools, the report says.

"[Ferguson Police Department's] approach to policing impacts how its officers interact with students, as well, leading them to treat routine discipline issues as criminal matters and to use force when communication and de-escalation techniques would likely resolve the conflict," the report says.

Students in the city of Ferguson feed into several suburban districts. The department's two school resource officers work in a middle school and high school in the Ferguson-Florissant School District. From the report:

"The stated mission of the [school resource officer] program, according to the memorandum of understanding between FPD and the school district, is to provide a safe and secure learning environment for students. But that agreement does not clearly define the SROs' role or limit SRO involvement in cases of routine discipline or classroom management. Nor has FPD established such guidance for its SROs or provided officers with adequate training on engaging with youth in an educational setting. The result of these failures, combined with FPD's culture of unreasonable enforcement actions more generally, is police action that is unreasonable for a school environment."

The report includes examples of overly aggressive tactics used by school police: charging a 15-year-old African American girl with failure to comply, resisting arrest, and peace disturbance when she refused to follow an officer to the principal's office; and arresting a 14-year-old African American student who "refused to leave the classroom after getting into a trivial argument with another student." 

"SROs' propensity for arresting students demonstrates a lack of understanding of the negative consequences associated with such arrests," the report says. "In fact, SROs told us that they viewed increased arrests in the schools as a positive result of their work. This perspective suggests a failure of training (including training in mental health, counseling, and the development of the teenage brain); a lack of priority given to de-escalation and conflict resolution; and insufficient appreciation for the negative educational and long-term outcomes that can result from treating disciplinary concerns as crimes and using force on students."

This language will sound familiar to followers of school-climate debates. After all, this report was written by the same Justice Department that jointly released guidance with the U.S. Department of Education that put schools on notice that excessive and unfairly applied disciplinary practices could be violations of federal civil rights laws.

"A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal's office, not in a police precinct," Attorney General Eric Holder said in January 2014 when the agencies released that guidance. Schools are responsible for creating agreements with outside law enforcement agencies that clearly outline their roles and protect the rights of students, the federal departments said.

"Schools cannot divest themselves of responsibility for the nondiscriminatory administration of school safety measures and student discipline by relying on school resource officers, school district police officers, contract or private security companies, security guards or other contractors, or law enforcement personnel," the guidance says. "To the contrary, the [federal] Departments may hold schools accountable for discriminatory actions taken by such parties."

Related:

Community Policing Task Force Has Recommendations for Schools, Too

Body Cameras on School Police Spark Student Privacy Concerns

 

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