Ending Excessive Force in Schools
On a May morning in 2014, 6-year-old E.G. and his mother walked up to the front door of Jefferson Center, an alternative school in Abilene, Texas. Like many children, E.G. did not want to leave his mother. A teacher’s aide came out to ask what the problem was and instructed E.G.’s mother to go get Officer Bond, the school’s School Resource Officer (SRO).
Officer Bond began yelling at E.G. and, when the child did not move, twisted E.G.’s arms behind his back, picked him up by the arms and carried him into the classroom. This is a pain-compliance maneuver that police officers use to restrain adults, yet Officer Bond used it on 6-year-old E.G. without hesitation. Officer Bond then forced E.G. into a chair and slammed his head on the table, causing E.G.’s head to hit the corner of a chalkboard and start to bleed. E.G. screamed in pain and tried to break free while Officer Bond told him never to strike an officer. E.G.’s mother watched in horror as her son was brutally forced to comply, simply for not listening to a school employee. Officer Bond demanded E.G.’s mother leave the school.
Many school districts across the country have their own police departments or contract with local law enforcement agencies to station officers in schools. The duties of these officers, including when and how they will interact with students, are rarely spelled out clearly in contracts or other documents. Use-of-force policies are often unavailable, even upon request, leaving parents, students, and advocates in the dark about what they can expect from school police officers.
Compounding this transparency problem is the disturbing lack of data about how and how often officers interact with students. Many law enforcement agencies have no requirement to report interactions between police and students. This means that data related to use-of-force incidents, including the use of tasers, pepper spray, and various pain-compliance maneuvers, is very hard to obtain, which can make it more difficult for families to file complaints or challenge inappropriate officer behavior.
Additionally, the officers who interact with students may not have sufficient youth-focused training, and risk causing serious physical harm to young people. In Texas, until 2015, no school police officer was required to have any special training, and many were simply trained to interact with adults on the street, not with children in schools. Now, following a change in the law, officers in large school districts must have youth-focused training, but the degree to which officers properly implement the training they receive is unknown.
In the report, Dangerous Discipline, Texas Appleseed and Texans Care for Children analyzed use-of-force data they obtained through open records requests to a number of police departments in Texas. Of 201 requests, only 19 departments provided sufficient use-of-force data. Even within that small sample, some common patterns emerged. Between 2011 and 2015, Black students comprised approximately 13 percent of the Texas student population, but were on the receiving end of 40 percent of use-of-force incidents reported. In the same period, students with disabilities made up approximately 9 percent of the student population, but accounted for 16 percent of use-of-force incidents. These trends are both disturbing and unsurprising—youth of color and students with disabilities in schools across the country are consistently over-represented in the punitive school discipline system and feel the impacts of school exclusions, police contact, and court involvement at higher rates than their peers.
E.G. was not the only child Officer Bond had assaulted while working as an SRO. In April 2016, he along with three other plaintiffs brought suit against Officer Bond for assaults against four schoolchildren that occurred on campus, without provocation. The federal court lawsuit, which is ongoing, alleges excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Plaintiffs, represented by the law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP and the University of Texas Civil Rights Clinic, are also suing the school district and city for failing to train and supervise Bond and for having policies in place that allowed the SRO to commit the assaults.
Plaintiffs in civil rights lawsuits often seek policy changes in addition to monetary damages. While monetary damages help plaintiffs in their personal recovery process, policy changes lead to lasting reforms. By preventing unnecessary uses of force on children, school districts and police departments can ensure safe learning environments for all children.
In addition to better, specialized police officer and school staff training, here are some policy changes that have resulted from recent settlements in school policing and excessive force cases.
Ending the use of force and restraints on students who are not posing immediate danger. The SRO must first try to apply age-appropriate conflict resolution techniques to de-escalate the situation. Only as a last possible resort may the SRO use force or restraints on students. All uses of force must be reported following the incident.
Implementing a restorative justice program within schools. Rather than using a punitive approach of punishing or suspending a student for misbehaving, schools use a restorative justice approach to focus on restoring relationships and creating a meaningful dialogue with those who were involved or impacted by the incident.
Creating meaningful and frequent opportunities for input from students, parents, families, and community stakeholders. To promote and foster a safe school environment, it is important that school discipline systems, including reviews of SRO programs, be transparent and open to community review.
School districts and law enforcement officials need not wait for incidents of assault to act. By taking proactive steps to implement the best practices outlined above, local officials will be promoting safe learning environments for all students.
Priscila Mosqueda and Marissa Balonon-Rosen are students at The University of Texas School of Law, where Ranjana Natarajan serves as Clinical Professor and Director of the Civil Rights Clinic. Morgan Craven is the Director of Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project.