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Thursday / July 27

School Resource Officers: Helping or Hurting Students and School Discipline?

Given the ready availability of cell phones and social media, more and more examples of school-based student violence have occurred and gone “viral.” Among the most controversial examples recently are those involving School Resource Officers (SROs), school-based police officers, and/or school security staff:

  • In March 2016, a Baltimore school district police officer slapped, kicked, and swore at a young black man outside a Baltimore high school, sparking a criminal investigation and cries for federal authorities to intervene.
  • Most of us have seen the October 2015 video of the SRO in South Carolina who ripped a high school girl from her chair and body-slammed her to the ground after she refused to follow some school rules.
  • Also in October 2015, a 14-year-old Texas boy was choked to the floor by an SRO called in to stop a gym fight.
  • In November 2014, a 52-lb 8-year-old Covington, KY elementary student—who suffered from ADHD and PTSD—was cuffed above the elbows for 15 minutes by an SRO because he was having some behavioral difficulties in his classroom.

In testimony on a Seclusions and Restraints Hearing before the House of Representative’s Committee on Education and Labor, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that there were hundreds of documented incidents between 1990 and 2009 of school students—most of them with disabilities—who had been forcefully restrained. Moreover, this report identified 20 cases that ended in death.

School Security Personnel in US Schools

According to the 2013-2014 Public School Safety and Discipline report published by the National Center for Educational Statistics, there are more than 43,000 SROs and other sworn police officers—and an additional 39,000 security guards—working in our country’s 84,000 public schools.

Relative to training in education, child and adolescent psychology, cultural sensitivity and understanding, and student disabilities and mental health, numerous investigative reports have noted the following:

  • According to a November 2015 article in The Atlantic, only 12 states have laws that specify training requirements for officers who are assigned or deployed to classrooms. In looking across these state laws, there are numerous inconsistencies, and many of these laws do not require training on how to understand and interact with children and adolescents (in contrast to adults).
  • According to Nina Salomon, a senior policy analyst at the Council of State Governments Justice Center, “All (police) officers are getting a certain level of training that they’re required to get as police officers. The additional training… on youth development, on working with youth, on prevention and de-escalation… hasn’t typically been received by the majority of law enforcement that work with youth inside a school building, or that are called to campus.”
  • According to a February 2013 study by Strategies for Youth, in 37 states, police academies spent 1% or less of their total training hours on juvenile justice issues. In five of these states, police academies do not require any training focused specifically on juvenile justice issues. And in all of these states—except Tennessee (which does provide specific training for officers deployed to schools)—police recruits were not taught how to respond to children with mental health, trauma-related, special education-related disorder, or disability issues.

The National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) provides a five-day “Basic SRO Course” and a three-day “Advanced SRO Course,” along with another three-day “School Security Officer Course.” Unfortunately, unless required by a school district, these courses are voluntary. Moreover, a November 2011 report, Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools, noted that these three or five day courses are unlikely to offset the law enforcement training and mindset of most school-based police. Most security officers working in schools are typically former community-based law enforcement professionals with training focused on interacting with criminals, not students.

Given all of this, it seems clear that—on a state regulatory level—SROs, school-assigned police officers, and privately hired school security guards:

  • Are inconsistently (or not) regulated relative to qualifications, training, certification, ongoing professional development, or evaluation
  • Probably have little formal training—from educators or school psychologists—in education and learning, school discipline, classroom management, child and adolescent development, mental health, and disabilities
  • Approach their jobs from a law enforcement perspective rather than a school management and student self-management perspective

The Result? The Disproportionate Treatment of Students

More students across the country are referred to law enforcement at earlier ages, these students then become involved in the juvenile justice system more often, and a disproportionate number of students of color and those with disabilities are being punished, restrained, and arrested.

  • 27% of all students referred to law enforcement and 31% of all students arrested were African-American—even though these students represented only 16% of the total student enrollment.
  • Students with disabilities accounted for approximately 25% of all students arrested and referred to law enforcement even though these students represented only 12% of the total student enrollment.

In addition, 75% of students with disabilities were physically restrained at school, 58% were placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement, and students with disabilities were twice as likely to be suspended as students without disabilities.

A National and State Call to Action

This past December, Congress reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)—also known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA). This legislation returns the responsibility for most of the operational facets of effective school and schooling (as well as school improvement) to every state’s department of education and its district and school partners.

As part of its legislation, ESEA/ESSA requires states to develop plans on how they will reduce bullying and harassment, student restraints and seclusions, and student suspensions and expulsions—all of which disproportionately affect students of color and with disabilities.

A number of studies suggest that the racial and disability-related disparities are not because these students exhibit more frequent or more serious social, emotional, or behavioral challenges. Many times, these students receive administrative office discipline referrals, suspensions, and expulsions for minor offenses—the same minor offenses that classroom teachers and instructional staff handle by themselves when exhibited by other, non-minority, general education students.

Moreover, SROs, school-based police, or security officers are more frequently called in to respond to students of color and with disabilities and their presence or tactics sometimes escalate minor problems into major crises or law enforcement events.

Every state department of education should include an SRO component in their ESEA-required plans.

Moreover, the following employment and continuing employment criteria should be included in those plans.

That all school security professionals:

  • Have at least a Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university
  • Pass at least one 3-credit college or university course (or the equivalent—45 hours) in the following areas: school-based multicultural processes and practices; child and adolescent development; child and adolescent abnormal development, mental health, and disabilities
  • Pass the National Association of School Resource Officers’ (NASRO) 40-hour Basic School Resource Officer training course (or the equivalent) prior to employment and deployment
  • Pass the NASRO 24-hour Advanced SRO or Supervisor training course (or the equivalent) within two years of one’s initial employment
  • Pass a certified training program (3 days minimum) in student conflict prevention and resolution, de-escalation and nonviolent crisis intervention, and restraint reduction
  • Attend at least 60 hours of ongoing and documented professional development in the content areas above every five years
  • Be registered or certified by their state department of education through the districts employing them (who are responsible for ensuring that the above criteria are met) prior to any new employment

In addition, the following principles and practices should be included in the ESEA/ESSA-required state plans to be implemented at the district level.

That all school security professionals:

  • Sign, at the beginning of each year as an addendum to their contract, a district-developed Job Description that emphasizes that their primary job is to keep schools safe from threats and not to engage in routine student discipline situations or events.
  • Respond to the directions of classroom teachers and administrators if asked to be involved in non-threat situations
  • Respond to the directions of administrators during high potential or actual active threat situations and follow the School Crisis Plan when administrators are not present during actual active threat situations.
  • Be standing and active members of their school’s School Discipline/School Climate Committee, as well as its School Crisis Team.
  • Know and understand the District’s Student Code of Conduct, while also participating in any initiatives related to decreasing disproportionality and increasing interventions for students with social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.
  • Know, understand, and participate in the school’s positive discipline, motivation and accountability, teasing and bully prevention, student behavioral incentive, and parent and community outreach systems and activities.

Conclusion

We need a more planned, comprehensive, and psycho-educationally-relevant process of hiring, preparing, deploying, integrating, and supervising SROs, school-based police, and school security guards.

When properly trained and integrated into a district or school’s positive and preventive discipline, behavior management, and student self-management system, these professionals are important additional resources that help keep students, staff, and schools safe, positive, and secure. However, their primary job is to keep schools safe from threats—not to become involved in routine student discipline situations.  This is especially important as many minor school discipline offenses could technically meet the statutory requirements for some non-violent community-based misdemeanors.

In the end, school staff and administrators should be fully responsible for and responsive to these minor discipline offenses as well as the vast majority of the significant offenses that are in most districts’ Codes of Conduct. And in most cases, the SROs should take the lead of the school administrators and staff.

We need to remember that these professionals are working in schools. They need to understand and conform to the culture of the school and the educational process.

We will lose this process if a police mentality becomes the prevailing mode of thought and operation in our classrooms.


I appreciate everyone who takes their professional and personal time to read and reflect on these thoughts. My goal in writing is to critically analyze current research, practice, and implementation in our districts, schools, and classrooms, while using a “common sense” empirical and experiential approach to help make them meaningful.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

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Written by

Dr. Howie Knoff is a national consultant who has spent 30 years working at the school, district, university, and state department of education levels. He has helped thousands of schools in every state across the country implement one or more components of school improvement- – from strategic planning to effective classroom instruction to positive behavioral support systems to multi-tiered strategic and intensive academic and behavioral interventions (see www.projectachieve.net). One of his most-recent books was published by Corwin Press: School Discipline, Classroom Management, and Student Self-Management.

You can contact Howie by Twitter (@DrHowieKnoff) or email (knoffprojectachieve@earthlink.net).

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