USA Education First Look

North Carolina video puts police in schools back in the spotlight

Officials are investigating a video showing a school police officer slamming a student to the ground, echoing similar incidents in recent years.

A violent incident captured on video has prompted the largest school district in North Carolina to review its standards for police officers assigned to work in schools.

The video, recorded by a 15-year-old student at Rolesville High School, shows an officer picking up and slamming a teenage girl to the floor. The girl was reportedly trying to break up a fight between her sister and another student in the cafeteria. 

The school's agreement with local police allows officers to use force, but it cannot be "excessive, arbitrary or malicious." The incident is currently under review by local law enforcement, authorities said, and the officer involved has been placed on paid administrative leave. But it has turned the spotlight back to the pros and cons of placing police officers in schools, now a widespread practice, after similar incidents made headlines in the last two years.

As of 2007, 40 percent of schools in America had assigned school resource officers (SROs), whereas just one percent of schools hosted officers in 1975. By 2013, there were 15,000 SROs in US schools. But response to the officers has been sharply divided, as Henry Gass reported for The Christian Science Monitor after a similar incident in South Carolina in 2015:

Some research has shown that an increased police presence in schools leads to more offenses of all types – whether serious or frivolous – being referred to law enforcement, resulting in police inappropriately replacing teachers as disciplinarians. Critics say SROs make schools feel more like jails.

But police officers in schools can give parents peace of mind about their childrens' safety, and they also can improve young people's perceptions of law enforcement, which is particularly important given the current lack of public confidence in police, some experts say. 

"This is a cost-benefit analysis, and we have to weigh the cost of putting them in there against the benefits," Jason Nance, an associate professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law in Gainesville, told the Monitor in September. "What I worry about more is the unintended consequences of putting those officers in those schools."

The relatively recent ubiquity of cell phone cameras with the ability to record video has drawn public attention to what some of those unintended consequences can be, as a number of violent incidents recorded by students have spread across the internet and ignited national debate. In March, a video of a school officer in Baltimore slapping and kicking a student led to criminal charges. The previous year, a video that showed an SRO in South Carolina slamming a student's desk to the ground – with her still in it – and tossing her across the room made its way across social media, sparking outrage. 

"When you look at these incidents that have been all over the news, a lot of it goes back to training," Don Bridges, first vice president of the National Association of School Resource Officers and an SRO in Maryland’s Baltimore County, told the Monitor. 

Some critics of SRO programs say that the problem with having officers in schools goes beyond inadequate training, arguing that their presence contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. One 2011 analysis of six years of United States Department of Education school crime and safety surveys found that "as schools increase their use of police officers, the percentage of crimes involving non-serious violent offenses that are reported to law enforcement increases." 

Meanwhile, some point to benefits of SRO programs, many of which emphasize mentoring and student counseling. In some places, SROs are replacing traditional counselors: Three of America’s five biggest school districts have more security officers than counselors, according to education website the 74.

In New York City, the country’s largest school district, there are nearly twice as many security officers as counselors. 

Not all experts see this as a good thing.

"I don't think it's possible to train police officers to act as counselors as well as a counselor would," Aaron Kupchik, a sociologist at the University of Delaware in Newark who focuses on school policing, told the Monitor in September. "We're asking police officers to do more and more. I think this is an example of asking police to do too much."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.