Cops in schools: Way to rebuild community trust in law enforcement?

With public trust in law enforcement plummeting, some believe the growth of police in schools can help restore confidence. Critics are concerned that too many children are being arrested for nonviolent offenses.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Oakland School Police Officer H. Matthews, watches students on their way out of school as classes let out for the day in Oakland, Calif., March 12, 2013.

The 8-year-old boy sat in a chair, sobbing, as a sheriff’s deputy handcuffed him around the biceps because his wrists were too small.

“You don’t get to swing at me like that,” the deputy said to the boy, who was diagnosed with ADHD, while a teacher recorded the incident in Covington, Ky., last fall.

“You can do what we’ve asked you to or you can suffer the consequences,” the officer continues.

The video went viral, and the deputy is now facing a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The sight of a uniformed police officer handcuffing an elementary school student may be surprising, even shocking. But police presence in schools is not new. After growing steadily for decades, the trend accelerated in the wake of school shootings such as the one at Columbine High in Colorado. Today, more than 19,000 police officers are now employed full time in American schools.

Many parents and teachers say that having police in schools makes them feel safer and gives them greater peace of mind. Police say that working in schools can help give children a positive opinion of law enforcement to carry into adulthood, as well as allow officers to cultivate leads on crime that could be occurring outside the school walls. While not denying that controversial incidents have occurred, the National Association of School Resource Officers argues that those point to a need for proper training and that the presence of law enforcement in schools can offer benefits for both students and teachers.

Critics, however, are concerned that in addition to offering a deterrent to school shootings – which are extremely rare – the officers too often assume the role of school disciplinarian. And some, including law enforcement officers, believe that the pendulum has swung too far toward teachers calling on officers to step in even for nonviolent behavior.

“Police are there to, one, provide a sense of security for parents, and two, to help [teachers] maintain order,” says Jason Nance, an associate professor of law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law.

A growing issue with school resource officer (SRO) programs around the country is that officers – and teachers – increasingly think that stepping in to handle routine infractions is why the officers were placed in the schools.

“It’s because they’re there,” says Emily Owens, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. “When you’re in charge of kids occasionally you need to discipline them, and when you have SROs, that’s who you’re going to rely on. That’s been the mechanical thing: They’re there, so you’ll use them.”

The number of police in schools has been climbing, spurred by federal funding and by America’s spike in violent crime in the 1980s and ’90s. Later, coverage of high-profile school shootings such as at Columbine High in 1999 spurred the trend further.

In 1975, only 1 percent of US schools had police – SROs – assigned. That figure increased to 22 percent by 1997. Some 10 years later, the last year for which data were available, it had risen to 40 percent.

With the added police presence has come, perhaps unsurprisingly, a tendency to rely more on it for disciplinary issues. For every category of offense, schools with SROs refer more offenses to law enforcement than schools without SROs, according to Professor Nance, who has analyzed data from the US Department of Education.

According to his analysis – part of a paper soon to be published in the Washington University Law Review – a school with an SRO is about 1-1/2 times as likely to refer a gun offense to law enforcement than a school without an SRO. It is also about 1-1/2 times as likely to refer students to law enforcement who commit offenses like “attack without a weapon” or “threat without a weapon.”

Denise Gottfredson, a professor of criminology at the University of Maryland, says police in schools seem to have a “net-widening” effect. 

“What we know about young people is they engage in a lot of improper behavior, especially during early adolescence,” she says, “but the typical way that is handled is through informal social control mechanisms.”

By “informal social control mechanisms,” she says she means “stuff done by parents and teachers and so forth.”

“But when we involve the police and probation officers, it’s much more likely that this behavior gets processed formally,” she continues. “So kids get records, and these records can stay with them.”

Records show that students have been arrested for texting, arriving late for class, violating school dress code, even passing gas in class. One student was arrested for telling another he would “get them” if they ate all the potatoes.

“I know lots of kids in my school that got into fights growing up,” Nance says. “I don’t think any of them were referred to police.” 

'Do you think this is the first 6-year-old we've arrested?'

Take Desre’e Watson. After throwing a tantrum at a central Florida elementary school in 2007, the girl was taken to the police station – handcuffed around her biceps – to be fingerprinted and have her mug shot taken before being taken to county jail. Desre’e was charged with battery, and after a brief stay at the jail was released to her mother. 

“Do you think this is the first 6-year-old we’ve arrested?” the local police chief asked The New York Times.

These brushes with the juvenile justice system can have long-term impacts, advocates for reform say. Nance says that even if a student isn’t convicted, her “life changes forever.”

Even if not convicted, many report trauma, stigma, and embarrassment. Students say they are monitored more closely by school officials and teachers.

Keshaundra Neal described the impact of her arrest – for walking past a fight that broke out in her school when she was 13 – in a report for Voices of Youth in Chicago Education.

“Even though I had good grades, my teachers treated me differently after that,” she said. “They saw me as someone who got into fights and got arrested.”

A 2015 analysis of juvenile incarceration in Cook County, Ill., found that an arrest by itself can decrease a juvenile’s likelihood of graduating from high school by 13 percent and increase the likelihood of adult incarceration by 23 percent.

“If you go into the juvenile system, even if it’s just probation, it makes it more likely you’ll end up in juvenile incarceration down the road,” says Joseph Doyle, an associate professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, and a coauthor of the analysis.

“If you lock kids up when they’re young, they’re more likely to end up locked up as an adult. So it looks like tough-on-crime doesn’t really work, it just leads to more crime,” says Professor Doyle. “That’s why when I see police in schools, I do worry.” 

One South Carolina county's experience

A desire to protect children after mass shootings, like the massacre at Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn., may have led to an evolution in SRO roles toward offering security, rather than community building.

Mitch Lucas, the assistant sheriff for Charleston County in South Carolina, says he first saw SROs deployed in schools in a non-security capacity, acting as a community resource for teachers and students, even teaching some classes.

“After a couple things happened with Columbine and other events like Sandy Hook, it shifted to security as the main focus,” he says. “We had that extreme, and now we’ve flown to the other extreme of when anything happens, [teachers] call the officer over and they want an arrest for anything that happens in schools.” 

After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, Charleston County, S.C., responded the same way that many jurisdictions did. Two months after the massacre, the mayor of North Charleston had a full-time police officer in every elementary school in the city. The city of Charleston assigned six teams of police officers to patrol public and private schools at random and check security issues.

Since the Sandy Hook shooting, there has been one shooting at a K-12 school in South Carolina. During the incident at Royal Live Oaks Academy charter school in Hardeeville in January, no one was injured or killed.

In Charleston, The Post and Courier reported in 2014 that parents’ reactions to cops in city schools were “generally positive.”

“I have been extremely pleased,” said Larry Thames, who spoke to the paper while he was picking up his grandson. “I feel the children as a whole are much safer.” 

Officer Eric Jourdan, who patrolled the area for years, told the paper he came out of retirement to become a cop at Burns Elementary School.

"It's been the most rewarding job that I've had," he said.

According to The Post and Courier, incidents at Burns dropped from 35 in the first half of the year to five in the second half, after Mr. Jourdan started work at the school.

"We're extremely fortunate to have him, because our community overall has such a poor perception of the reason for law enforcement," Principal Lynn Owings said. "It's worth the investment. Building that relationship with students when they are young will change their lives forever.”

Officers were first introduced into schools in the 1960s precisely to improve police relations with their communities, Professor Owens says. And in this era of fraught police-community relations, that can be a helpful role.

“That’s a good idea behind SROs,” she says, “help officers become more of a normal, positive presence in the lives of kids.”

Owens says she thinks that dramatic examples of students being arrested for petty infractions mischaracterize the work done by the majority of the officers.

Many, she says, are doing the important and difficult job of improving community relations with the police by befriending children at an early age and earning their trust.

“On average the story is complicated. None are all good or all bad,” she says. 

Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, says that the No. 1 goal of an SRO is “to bridge the gap between law enforcement and youth.”

Given the current widespread distrust of law enforcement around the country, SROs are “low-hanging fruit” for critics of police to target, he says. NASRO, a nonprofit organization formed 25 years ago, gives SRO training to between 2,000 and 3,000 police officers every year, and Mr. Canady believes that properly trained SROs can be great assets to schools for security, mentoring, and education.

“The majority of SROs we work with are going into this job not with the idea of seeing how many kids they can arrest,” he says.

Surveys have found that the typical police officer spends half his or her time on law enforcement activities, 25 percent on mentoring or counseling students, and 13 percent on teaching, according to a Gottfredson study. Canady also points out that between 1994 and 2009, the number of juvenile arrests has decreased by almost 50 percent.

But the case of Charleston County, which had the most juvenile arrests of any South Carolina county in fiscal year 2013-14, highlights another worrying trend that some experts link to the rise of police in schools: That year, black children made up 77 percent of juvenile referrals in the county, compared with 22 percent for white children. Of those cases, just 4 percent were classified as “violent/serious,” according to state data. As of 2009, 32.5 percent of children in the county were African-American.

These racial disparities exist nationwide. The US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection finds that, although African-American students make up 15 percent of the students in the database, they comprise 35 percent of students who were suspended once, 44 percent of students suspended more than once, and 36 percent of the students who were expelled from school. 

Alternative justice

Several school systems around the country have been trying out alternative justice systems, at least partly in an effort to help minority and other at-risk students.

Six New York City schools serving at-risk students, for example, have eschewed SROs for a focus on “promoting dignity and respect” among all members of the school community. Each school reported above-average attendance and graduation rates, and below-average suspension and crime rates.

West Philadelphia High School, which implemented restorative justice practices in 2008, saw a 52 percent decline in violent offenses in the first year. The method, which involves both victims and offenders, tries to mediate a resolution that offers restitution for the victim without putting a juvenile behind bars.

States like Illinois have adopted other policies and technologies – including electronic monitoring and well-enforced curfews – to serve as a substitute for incarceration. 

Proponents of finding alternatives to incarcerating nonviolent juvenile offenders point to the price tag: On average it costs $150,000 a year to detain a juvenile. It costs $12,400 a year on average to send a student to public school, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The cost of incarcerating juveniles, says Nance of the University of Florida, “dwarfs the average amount our nation spends to educate youth in our public schools.”

For his part, Nance believes that the goal of improving community relations can be a good incentive for improving policing in schools. In particular, he thinks police departments should enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with local school districts, establishing ground rules for what SROs can and can’t do.

“If we’re going to have police in schools, they need to receive more training, they need to understand adolescent behavior better, they have to understand how to de-escalate situations better, they need to understand how a student thinks, and really the serious consequences [of] arresting and incarcerating a juvenile,” he says.

Canady of NASRO agrees, saying that MOUs are “critical to a successful program.”

“The problems come when you have law enforcement placed in schools and they’re being placed with the wrong strategy, and that is happening,” he adds. 

In particular, he says, very few city agencies send officers to his organization for training. The majority of schools with SROs are in urban areas, according to Gottfredson’s study.

“Very few metropolitan agencies come to us for training, and that’s where I hear whatever these horror stories are coming from,” says Canady. “Whenever we get the chance to train with urban departments, I get pretty excited.”

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