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Feds to Schools: Protect Students' Civil Rights by Limiting Role of School Police

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school resource officer, civil rights, department of education

In an effort to protect students' civil rights and limit unnecessarily harsh school discipline, the Obama administration on Thursday released new resources related to the hiring and training of school resource officers.

They come amid national discussions about appropriate school discipline and the role of law enforcement officers, both in communities and in schools, following several high-profile student arrests. They are the latest efforts by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice to reshape school discipline by pushing back against zero-tolerance policies.

The resources include guidelines created for local schools and state policymakers that outline best practices for creating agreements between schools and local law enforcement agencies, monitoring the actions of school-based police officers, and training police in areas like child development and de-escalating conflict.

Those best practices will now serve as requirements for school resource officers hired through U.S. Department of Justice grants, said Ronald L. Davis, the director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services at the agency. 

Local law enforcement agencies around the country use those grants, administered on a three-year cycle, to hire between 100 and 150 school resource officers every year, which means there are about 450 positions funded by the grants at a given time, Davis said. But the agency hopes the use of heightened requirements will serve as an example to all schools with on-campus law enforcement, whether or not they use federal grants to hire them. The new grant requirements build on a requirement the Justice Department introduced in 2014 that police agencies receiving the federal grants must have clear agreements that outline their responsibilities within schools.

Federal officials said they are concerned about violations of students' civil rights and overuse of school arrests.

While school resource officers "can help provide a positive and safe learning environment and build trust between students and law enforcement officials in some situations, I am concerned about the potential for violations of students' civil rights and unnecessary citations or arrests of students in schools, all of which can lead to the unnecessary and harmful introduction of children and young adults into a school-to-prison pipeline," U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. wrote in a letter to states and districts.  "As education leaders, you can empower schools, educators, and staff with the skills and capacity to avoid relying on SROs in the first place, and also eliminate SRO-related school discipline policies and practices that may harm young people and needlessly contribute to their involvement with the juvenile and criminal justice systems."

Thirty percent of U.S. public schools reported having at least one resource officer in 2013-14, according to the most recent federal data, and 11 percent reported the presence of at least one sworn law enforcement officer that is not designated as a school resource officer.

Guidelines for Hiring, Training School Police

The presence of school-based law enforcement has grown alongside concerns about student safety, but some civil rights groups have said officers often threaten students' civil rights by being involved in routine disciplinary matters that would better be handled by school personnel. The problem disproportionately affects students of color, who are more likely to be arrested or referred to law enforcement at school, they note. Black students were more than twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement or arrested at school than their white peers in 2013-14, according to the latest data from the Education Department's office for civil rights.

Contributing to those arrest rates are policies and practices that "hustle kids out of school and into the court system for minor infractions," said Karol Mason, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Justice Programs at the Justice Department. 

Among the recommended actions outlined in the rubric released Thursday:

  • Seek community input when creating agreements with law enforcement agencies that detail officers' roles in schools and limit their involvement in disciplinary issues.
  • Incorporate local, state, and federal civil rights laws into those agreements and establish processes for monitoring compliance and receiving complaints about potential violations.
  • Create policies for hiring and training school resource officers on issues like appropriate use of restraints, child development, and the effects of youth involvement with the justice system.
  • Train teachers and staff not to call on school officers to assist with non-violent disciplinary issues.
  • Establish a process for evaluating school resource officers.

A similar document for local and state policymakers, also released Thursday includes examples of state statutes that require schools to take such actions. Just 12 states have special training requirements for school resource officers, according to a 2015 report by the American Institutes for Research. In addition to training requirements, some states have worked to amend laws that contribute to high student arrest rates for vague and subjective infractions like "disturbing a school."

Even if school-based officers are employed by an outside law enforcement agency, schools are responsible for ensuring that they do not violate students' civil rights, the Justice and Education departments said in 2014 civil rights guidance on school discipline.

The agencies have enforced that position through investigations and complaint resolutions, including a recent agreement with the Richland County, S.C., sheriff's department, which came under fire after one of its officers violently arrested a girl after she refused to put away her cell phone in math class. A video of that arrest spread quickly online, drawing new attention to concerns about school police.

Use of School Resources

Some civil rights groups have suggested schools shouldn't have police at all.

King stressed in a call with reporters Wednesday that such decisions are made at the local level. If police are in schools, they should operate under carefully crafted policies, he said. He also said schools should weigh how to appropriately spend resources so that students feel both safe and supported. He noted federal civil rights data that showed that, in 2013-14, 1.6 million students attended a school that had a law-enforcement officer but no school counselor.

Davis said that school resource officers can live up to the ideal of community policing by forming positive relationships with students so that when there is a need for law enforcement to respond to a school, they are officers who are familiar with the unique needs of students.

If an outside officer responds to a school call, "you don't have an officer who has a relationship, you have an officer who is taking a call," he said.

Photo: Joseph Fox, a school resource officer in the Shelby County Sheriff's Department walks through a hallway at Southwind High School in Memphis, Tenn. --Stan Carroll/The Commercial Appeal/Zuma

Further reading about school police and school resource officers: 

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