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What Parents Need to Ask About School Police

We all remember the video of the South Carolina incident, in which a teacher called a school administrator to deal with a student who refused to give up her cell phone. The administrator called a School Resource Officer (SRO), who ripped the girl from her chair, threw her across the room, and arrested her. A classmate who videotaped this violence was also arrested. The ACLU is representing the student who videotaped the assault in a lawsuit.

Before this incident, parents had been organizing to challenge the conduct of SROs, sworn officers deployed by the local sheriff’s department, in that district’s schools. Local attorneys introduced me to the sheriff whose deputies policed the school. When I offered to train his police force using our Policing the Teen Brain in School curriculum, the sheriff was not interested.

As I train law enforcement officers around the country, this case remains a lightning rod. Some officers tell me the girl deserved it; others tell me the officer should not have been in that situation in the first place; still others find the officer’s response deranged and repugnant.

Parents I have spoken with have been uniformly horrified at the SRO’s use of force. While some believe the girl “deserved” punishment for not being compliant, parents generally agree that the use of force was both unreasonable and excessive. Many parents have asked me, “Can they just do that?”

We know that many parents, school officials, and even advocates are unsure of exactly what SROs can and cannot do, much less what they should do or what should be considered illegal. The legal response to the deputy in the South Carolina case demonstrates the enduring confusion: while the deputy lost his job, the prosecutor did not bring charges, and the U.S. Department of Justice found insufficient evidence to bring federal criminal civil rights charges.

Formal arrangements between schools and police departments vary from place to place. In most places, the activities of police in schools are not carefully defined and supervised. And that’s a lot of variation when one considers that according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics for the 2013-2014 school year, 43 percent of all U.S. public schools -- including 63 percent of middle and 64 percent of high schools -- had security personnel on their grounds.

The general ignorance of the authority, scope of power, and permitted interactions of SROs with students is profound. It’s as profound among SROs as it is among school administrators, teachers, and frequently judges and members of the legislature. At a July 2017 hearing about legislation that would require SROs to receive training and codify a clear definition of their roles in schools, a Massachusetts legislator expressed his astonishment when he learned that SROs are not social workers, nor are they recruited and trained to work with children and youth.

For these reasons, Strategies for Youth developed a Parent's Checklist for SROs in Your Children's Schools. The checklist helps parents learn the details of the often confusing and ill-defined role of SROs, navigate interactions with SROs, and advocate on behalf of their children.

The parents’ checklist identifies key issues and questions that may arise about the scope of authority of police officers deployed in school, including:

  • What is the legal authority of the SRO? Who employs the SRO?

  • Do state laws require students to be arrested for certain behaviors and actions?

  • If and when will a parent be notified when an SRO questions their child?

  • What avenues do parents have to complain about an SRO’s actions? To what agency should a parent complain? The police? The schools?

  • Do written policies exist on the use of force and restraints by SROs?

  • Can parents invite SROs to attend IEP conferences so the officers understand how to respond to a child’s behavior?

  • What should a child do if an ICE officer enters a school to question a child?

Responses to the initial publication of the checklist have been revealing. We’ve heard from SROs and advocates alike that they could not answer many of the questions posed, even from folks who had been working in districts for some time. In my experience working in 18 states, the answers vary wildly within and across school districts.

I encourage parents and advocates to use the checklist, compare notes, organize and demand accountability of schools. Never assume that “this won’t happen to my child.” We welcome feedback about the usefulness of the checklist.

Lisa H. Thurau is Executive Director and founder of Strategies for Youth.



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