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The Police in Schools Debate Needs More Nuance, Ed Groups Say

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As some school districts come under community pressure to cut ties with police amid a national reckoning over policing and race, organizations that support school resource officers are calling for more nuance to the debate.

While acknowledging that Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected when untrained SROs are deployed in schools, the organizations say decisions about school safety and use of SROs should be made locally with input from principals, parents, students, and the community.

In addition to the National Association of School Resource Officers, the groups arguing for keeping SROs include: The National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American School Counselor Association, and the National PTA.

The group called for a distinction to be made between general law enforcement officers and school resource officers, who are trained to work with children, should be carefully selected, and who should not be involved in school discipline.

It is "wholly inappropriate and dangerous" to have police officers working in schools who have not undergone additional training, the groups said in a statement. And SROs should operate within a narrowly defined scope, like working with safe-school teams, educating students about the law, working on school-violence prevention, and mentoring students.

"Just dropping an untrained guard or police officer into a school as if it were any other beat is a recipe for disaster, and we unfortunately see that disaster play out too often in schools," said JoAnn Bartoletti, the chief executive of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said in a statement. 

Since George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis in May, national protests have called for increased accountability and spawned a movement to remove police officers from schools. Racial justice advocates have long called for removing cops from schools, citing the disparities in arrest data and arguing they facilitate the "school-to-prison" pipeline. 

As Education Week has reported, although Black students comprise just 15 percent of the students in America's public schools, in the 2015-16 school year they accounted for 31 percent of the arrests or referrals to law enforcement agencies.

The new wave of protests have prompted districts in Minneapolis, Portland, Ore., and Denver to remove or phase out school resource officers and law enforcement officers from their schools. 

The American Federation of Teachers in June called for school safety personnel to be trained as peace officers who focus on non-violent conflict resolution, with limited use of force. Both the AFT and the National Education Association have expressed concerns that Black students are disproportionately arrested, Education Week has reported.

The new statement recognized the calls for more scrutiny of law enforcement and acknowledged the role that systemic racism has played.

"Recent events related to our country's history with police brutality and systemic racism have led to calls for the removal of all law enforcement, including SROs, from schools," the groups wrote.

"As organizations that represent the professionals and parents tasked with creating, leading, and implementing school safety efforts, we acknowledge and strongly oppose the harm that inappropriate use of force and inappropriate role in school discipline efforts by untrained or undertrained law enforcement in schools can cause, particularly for students of color and students with disabilities. However, it is critically important to recognize that carefully selected and specially trained SROs differ from other law enforcement officers and security personnel assigned to schools who have not received adequate preparation to work with children, adolescents, and in a school environment."

But they say there is an appropriate role for school resource officers, including helping to promote a safe campus, and that rigorous selection, training, and evaluation can help mitigate against unequitable outcomes.

To aid those efforts, the group also released guidelines on how to do so. Key among them is ensuring there is a memorandum of understanding between the schools and the law enforcement agency clearly spelling out roles, responsibilities, training, expectations and barring involvement in school discipline matters; ensuring that principals are an integral part of the selection process; and creating opportunities for continued training. SROs should also know about student mental health, culturally responsive practices, and trauma-informed practices.

But discipline is also a key area, and schools should also work to promote positive behavior interventions and restorative practices instead of relying on punitive discipline measures, and ensure that teachers and staff know when to involve school resource officers.

At the same time, schools should also be vigilant about reviewing data for disparate impacts and the policies and practices that lead to those outcomes.

Community feedback should also be sought annually. And SRO programs should also be evaluated every year to see whether they are effective, and among other things, their impact on students, equity, and role in promoting school safety.

The full list of guidelines can be found here.

Caption: Chicago Public Schools students and supporters rally outside CPS headquarters in June for the removal of police officers from schools. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

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