In the post-Newtown era, public schools are seemingly a hotbed of violence, forcing policymakers to step in to ensure students’ safety and peace of mind.
Increasing police presence in school is one strategy, but without tailored training in dealing with young students, officers can’t make students feel safe.
After 26 children and teachers died in the Newtown school shooting in 2012, President Obama called for a federal investment of $150 million to put 1,000 police officers, social workers and counselors in schools.
Many of the new and existing officers in primary schools are called School Resource Officers. They work to protect students from weapons, drugs, assaults and, in the worst-case scenario, shootings. There are now 43,000 SROs working across the nation’s 84,000 public schools, separate from the additional 39,000 security guards, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Yet, recent events have highlighted clear problems in how officer’s implement this protection, undermining the very feeling of safety that’s meant to come with their presence.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in South Carolina’s Spring Valley High last month. Here, a now viral video caught Deputy Ben Fields ripping a student out of her desk, slamming her to the ground and dragging her across the floor in an effort to remove her from one of the school’s classroom. The student was apparently disrupting the classroom by using her cellphone.
Such excessive force in response to average juvenile delinquency does much more to disrupt the classroom environment. A student refusing to leave the room interrupts one class. Watching a deputy slam a young girl to the ground informs your whole life. This excessive force — viewed by countless other students online — makes students constantly wary of the officers and similar authorities.
The Richland County Police department dismissed Deputy Fields two days after the incident, but that problem doesn’t begin and end there.
In August, a Kentucky officer was caught on camera handcuffing disabled children who didn’t follow directions, leading to the American Civil Liberties Union to file a lawsuit against the officer’s sheriff. In Birmingham, Alabama, school officers routinely pepper-sprayed students for minor disciplinary infractions, one of whom was a pregnant student whose crime was crying in the hallway. In September, a federal judge ruled the officers’ actions to be unconstitutional.
Of course, these instances of abuse are outliers in a system that has the potential to do a lot of good for students. Very public, violent acts do not depict the entire system, they only shape our perception.
According to the Washington Post, SROs have prevented at least three school shootings since 2012. The officers averted potential tragedies because of their proximity to the schools and communication with students.
Having SROs that students can trust facilitates a better school environment for students. In instances of sexual assault or abuse, for instance, victims can confide in SROs who can subsequently investigate these cases and make arrests if needed.
“This pays off when they are in crisis. They trust you and will come to you,” Officer Avrie Schott of the La Crosse Police Department in Wisconsin told PoliceOne, an online publication that works to provide law enforcement officers with news and other resources.
A student who came to Officer Schott for help led to an investigation and arrest of the student’s guardian who was accused of sexually assaulting her.
Yet, the abuse and excessive force committed by a few officers undermines any positive benefits that may come with SROs.
In order to prevent future acts of police violence against students, police departments must work to make sure SROs are specifically trained in how to deal with students who are still immature, so that they can better differentiate between disciplinary infractions and criminal ones.
It is essential that this line is clear because schools shouldn’t involve officers in disciplinary actions in the first place. An SRO’s responsibilities should solely revolve around protecting student safety. A student who refuses to give up her cellphone certainly does not fall under this category.
Officers who delve into student discipline only make students distrust and fear police officers. This distrust can leak into their college careers, making them hesitant to seek help from campus police officers if they ever need it.
In order to ensure a safe school environment, students must be able to view officers as helpful, not dangerous.
Pepper spray doesn’t frequently fit into this equation.