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Schools continue hard work of discipline reform

Students five times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct if school has SRO

The October video of a South Carolina school resource officer forcefully arresting a 16-year-old Richland County student for refusing to put her cell phone away became a viral example of school policing gone wrong

Though some districts have been reforming disciplinary procedures for years, incidents like Richland’s provide yet more guidance for administrators on managing relationships with SROs and establishing effective school discipline policies.

SRO ranks grew steadily in recent years, in large part due to more available federal funding for the programs in the wake of Sandy Hook and other school shootings, says Dennis Parker, director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union. An estimated 14,000 SROs operate in schools nationwide, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers.

“We’re seeing an increasing incidence of people who have SROs involved in discipline for non-criminal situations that previously would have been handled by a principal or administrator,” Parker says.

SROs operate differently from state to state, district to district and even school to school, Parker says. Some schools do not have a specific set of instructions for SROs. Other schools do not make clear who has the final say on a disciplinary case—the administration or the SROs.

And many SROs, though they may be comfortable working with the general public, are not trained sufficiently to work with students, Parker adds.

Students were five times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct if their school was assigned a police officer, a 2009 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice found. Some 92,000 students faced school-related arrests in 2012, the most recent data available from the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights.

Legal statutes

The Richland County incident and several others have been complicated in South Carolina and 24 other states that have some form of “disturbing school” statutes that make it a crime for students to act out in class. These laws escalate noncriminal behaviors into criminal offenses.

Administrators must know state laws and ensure SROs know a district’s expectations about handling disciplinary problems, says Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. It is also beneficial for administrators and SROs to attend training sessions together.

SROs should take action only if a student commits a crime, Canady says. SROs should not be involved in school discipline, such as determining if a student should be suspended or expelled, he adds. Administrators handle that.

Changes in South Carolina

The Richland County’s SROs work for the local sheriff’s department, which terminated the police officer involved in the Spring Valley High School confrontation shortly afterward.

“We know important work is ahead of us as we thoughtfully and carefully review the decision-making process that may lead to a school resource officer taking the lead in handling a student disruption,” Richland School District Two Superintendent Debbie Hamm said in an October statement. The district’s goal is to improve communication techniques to avoid similar confrontations, she added.

 Richland faces an ongoing investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to determine if federal law was violated by the officer. The district is reviewing SRO responsibilities with the sheriff’s department.

Twenty-three SROs continue to patrol schools throughout the district. Two SROs are stationed at each high school, one at each middle school and four at designated elementary schools. The SROs complete state-approved training, says district spokesperson Libby Roof.

The South Carolina state superintendent formed a Safe Schools Task Force in November 2015 to examine best practices for student discipline, and to train educators and law enforcement on appropriate procedures to ensure a safe school climate throughout the state.

Reforming a broken system

Some large districts, including The School District of Philadelphia and Houston ISD, have spent more than a decade working to close the school-to-prison pipeline.

Texas began stationing police officers in schools in the 1990s, helping start the national trend. In 2000, a rash of gang violence at Furr High School in Houston ISD led Principal Bertie Simmons out of retirement to rescue the troubled school, where 95 percent of students are free-lunch eligible. At that time, the district employed one police officer, and another was provided by the Houston police department.

“Our school was just a battleground,” Simmons says. “I couldn’t believe the way they were treating kids—throwing them up against brick walls, putting handcuffs on them.”

As a result, campus violence escalated further, Simmons says. Students who would ask to speak to her were sometimes stopped and arrested by police.

In 2008, Simmons worked with the Houston police chief to change the system. Furr police officers were trained to build relationships with students and act as mentors, rather than disciplinarians. Administrators also implemented restorative justice practices, and a personalized learning model to give students more one-on-one attention.

Back in 2000, teachers were suspending up to 30 students per day for dress code infractions and minor behavior issues, Simmons says. Last year, only three Furr students were suspended and one was arrested. And the school’s graduation rate rose from 47 percent in 2000 to 96 percent in 2015.

“If you’re going to have police on your campus, they need to be trained to deal with students in ways other than being punitive,” Simmons says. “Schools should be a safe harbor for students. And administrators need to set the pace for how students should be treated.”