'We're not excessive': The case for training and oversight for school police

'We're not excessive': The case for training and oversight for school police
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As if on cue, the same day that Strategies for Youth released its survey of state legislatures’ training requirements for police in schools — commonly referred to as school resource officers, or SROs — a video of a school resource officer slamming an 11-year-old girl’s head into a concrete wall went viral. The clip of a clearly traumatized child pleading for a male adult police officer to “get off of me” as he screams at her, while a school official meekly protested the treatment, vividly illustrates the report’s central premise: that the SRO program, as it exists in most states, desperately needs training and oversight.  

The young girl’s purported “crime”? She took more cartons of milk than she was supposed to  from the school cafeteria. 

This disturbing scene occurred in New Mexico, one of the 30 states where, the report found, SROs are not required to undergo specialized training or preparation before they are deployed to public schools. And the scene that unfolded confirms the consequences of such states’ inaction.  Police officers assigned to work in schools rely upon only two tools — force and arrest — to address situations that require a far lighter touch. 

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All too often, their approach conflicts with educators’ mission to create environments that are conducive to learning and student growth, and with most parents’ wishes for their children’s education. During a recent listening tour, Nebraska state Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks (D) noted that: “In some schools, kids were being charged for schoolyard fights and pushing matches. … That’s not what Nebraska’s parents want. They want something better for their kids — like conflict resolution, like restorative justice and school disciplinary measures.”  

The deeply flawed SRO model is rooted in a disconnect between its stated purpose and the role most school police actually perform. The public justification for federal funding ($1 billion to date), and money from the states (another $1 billion), to place police in schools is to protect students and staff from school shootings.  

But few SROs are called upon to do so — and when they are, they often fail. Criminologists at Texas State University’s ALERRT program identified 25 incidents of active shooters targeting schools in 2013. None ended as a result of the actions of armed staff, guards or police officers. In four high-profile 2018 school shootings — in Kentucky, Florida, Maryland and Texas — armed guards were present but unable to stop the killing. 

And yet, for 20 years, this country has steadily put more and more police in schools. Current estimates are that 71 percent of U.S. public high schools deploy at least one full-time, armed law enforcement officer. As the numbers increase, so does the research base attesting to the harm their presence can cause children. In a recent study, the authors found that youths who experience intrusive police stops are at risk of heightened emotional distress and post-traumatic stress symptoms. Importantly, youths who were stopped by police officers at school reported more emotional distress and negative reactions than those who were stopped in other locations.

Another study, of 2.5 million students in Texas, found that federal grants for police in schools increased middle-school suspension and expulsion rates by 6 percent, with black and Latinx students experiencing the largest increases in discipline. A 2015 empirical analysis concluded that a police officer’s regular presence at a school increases the odds that students will be referred to law enforcement for low-level offenses, with “severe” consequences for their future. 

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There are some hopeful signs. Strategies for Youth’s survey found that 24 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that mandate SRO training — 20 in the past five years. This suggests that the videos showing police force against youths and efforts of advocates to sound the alarm are starting to have some effect in some states.

However, only nine states and the District of Columbia require SROs to be trained in adolescent development; only seven require them to be trained to recognize signs of adolescents with mental health issues; and only five require them to learn trauma-informed approaches. 

It’s a start, but we have a long way to go. 

Another promising development is a new professional cropping up in some schools: the “school safety and security specialist,” a term coined by Chris Ward, director of safety and security in Columbus, Ohio. These professionals are employees of the school, not the police department. Many are former teachers, coaches and counselors, as well as law enforcement officers. They do not wear badges or carry guns. Ward views specialists’ chief goal as “building strong relationships” and provides training for them in the behavioral effects of trauma, poverty and violence and restorative approaches. He believes it is important that they view themselves as “part of the community, with the duty to protect and keep that environment safe for everyone.” 

The school safety and security specialist represents a potential compromise between those who insist that we need police in schools and those who recognize the harms that police can inflict, particularly to vulnerable students. Toward the end of the video of the New Mexico SRO, the educator tells the police officer, “We are not going to use excessive force to get this done,” to which the officer replies: “We’re not excessive!” He has since resigned, but it’s likely he believed that statement. And therein lies the problem. 

We need to first reduce the numbers of police in schools, and then ensure that those who remain are trained to interact peacefully and effectively with young people, and to understand and adhere to clear restraints on their role. Before doing anything at all, perhaps, officers should pause and remember the old adage: “First, do no harm.” 

Johanna Wald is an independent researcher/writer and a consultant for Strategies for Youth, an organization committed to improving relations between police and young people.  

James B. Golden Jr., a retired police chief and former chief safety executive for the School District of Philadelphia, also consults for Strategies for Youth. He is a past president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).