Who is Holding Districts and Police Departments Accountable?
Controversy continues to swirl over a series of violent incidents that have occurred in the Woodland Hills School District, just outside Pittsburgh. These incidents involve allegations of violence directed against students by the school's principal and by school-based law enforcement officials. Students have been injured. In one recent case, one of these law enforcement officials allegedly punched a student in the face and nearly knocked the student's tooth out. An incident last year led to disciplinary action against the principal, but the principal remains at the school and was even hired as the school's varsity football coach last month. These incidents and the responses of administrators and the justice system so far raise fundamental questions about the role of police in our schools. They provide a textbook example of what is wrong with how many districts use police: lack of accountability for the actions of police; inappropriate use of force; failure to respect (and protect) the rights of students; and proposed solutions that may make matters worse. Woodland Hills' school-based law enforcement officials are known as “school resource officers” or SROs. These are sworn police officers on loan from a neighboring law enforcement agency as part of a contract between the district and the police department. But who is in control when SROs patrol the hallways? What do the school's administrators do to protect students from harmful contact with local police? What responsibility does the school administration have when things go wrong between police and students, especially when there is unnecessary physical harm? Often when controversies arise, police say, "Don’t blame us. We’re here because the school asked us to be here." Educators say, "We cannot control what police do in our school — that’s a law enforcement matter." Who is holding districts and police departments accountable? In Woodland Hills, the officer has not been held accountable nor has the Allegheny County District Attorney, Stephen A. Zappala, prosecuted the assault. Last week community members held a protest. “We have some grave concerns about the way justice is carried out, which is why we are standing here today,” said the Rev. Richard Wingfield, pastor of Unity Baptist Church in Braddock, Pennsylvania. This is a nationwide problem. The degree of collaboration between police and school systems has increased in the past two decades, with more districts placing police in schools on a full-time basis rather than calling them in during genuine emergencies where there is a threat to the well-being of the school community. The experience of other districts using SROs has been that these officers sometimes engage in searches and interrogations an outside law enforcement officer would not be permitted to conduct without a warrant signed by a judge. Many districts are unsure about when these officers may have access to student records. And districts typically fail to demand that officers not carry or use potentially harmful weapons when dealing with ordinary student conflicts – including the Taser used on a student in a recent incident. A “solution” being considered by the district is to equip SROs with body cameras. Such a measure would provide no real protections to students but would increase the surveillance of students by police. That would likely lead to more students being criminalized. In the words of one of my ACLU colleagues, “Body cameras present a real threat to students' privacy and contribute to the creation of an environment in schools of pervasive surveillance…More likely than not, body camera footage is just going to be whipped out left and right for the enforcement of petty rules and disciplinary disturbances.” Moreover, these arrangements between police and school districts undermine other discipline reform efforts of the district aimed at reducing out-of-school suspensions. Woodland Hills has long had one of the highest suspension rates in the state, especially for black students and black students with disabilities. In recent years, Woodland Hills has undertaken some efforts to reduce suspensions and improve school climate, with the support of AASA - The School Superintendents Association and the Children’s Defense Fund. And like me, district leaders participated in the Obama White House’s “Rethink Discipline” Summit in July of 2015. But placing police in schools under these arrangements undermines those reform efforts. It has created Woodland Hills’ own version of “whack-a-mole.” Police contact increases while the district claims to reform suspension policies. The Woodland Hills School District has a choice. SRO arrangements are not mandated by law but are based on a contract between local law enforcement and the district. It can refuse to contract with local police, instead committing resources to student support services, or it can place stiff restrictions on police activities and the weapons they are permitted to carry in schools. In Woodland Hills, the school district and police have become an unholy and unaccountable alliance. The district’s responsibility should be first and foremost to care for the well-being of students.
UPDATE (10/12/2018): On 8/23/2017, five former students filed a lawsuit against the district, school administrators, the school resource officer, and local law enforcement and private security retained by the district. The suit alleged that officials "created and/or acquiesced in a culture of verbal abuse, excessive force and intimidation which resulted in harm" to students. See Former Students File Lawsuit Against Woodland Hills School District, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. On October 9, 2018, the district settled with the students for $530,000.
UPDATE (6/11/2021): The Woodland Hills School District has terminated its School Resource Officer agreements and removed police from its schools. See Calm without police: Woodland Hills’ superintendent explains how the district boosted supports and phased out law enforcement.
Harold Jordan is Senior Policy Advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and the author of Beyond Zero Tolerance: Discipline and Policing in Pennsylvania Public Schools.
Photo: Woodland Hills surveillance video