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When Cops Go to School

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August 25, 2009

(Originally posted on FireDogLake’s the Seminal.)

As a growing number of advocates and scholars have observed, K-12 public schools around the country have increasingly come to rely on law enforcement officers, frequently referred to as School Resource Officers (SROs), to patrol school hallways. Unfortunately, these officers are frequently deployed without sufficient consideration as to how their presence might impact the overall educational climate of schools, how overzealous policing tactics might compromise the educational achievement of at-risk children, or how to ensure that these programs are subject to transparency and accountability.

That’s why, with the new school year getting underway, the ACLU released a white paper outlining best practices for the administration of SRO programs. In setting the tone for a productive school year, school districts with SROs should adopt the policies recommended in this document to ensure that students learn in a safe and respectful environment.

When SRO programs do not adequately define the roles of the SROs or their purpose, students suffer. In New York City, public school students have been arrested for minor disciplinary infractions like being late to class or bringing cell phones to school. In Florida, a 13-year-old was arrested for repeatedly passing gas in class; a Los Angeles, 16-year-old was arrested after she dropped a piece of birthday cake and failed to clean the mess to the satisfaction of the school resource officer; and a Minnesota 14-year-old was arrested for text-messaging in class.Arrests of students for such minor incidents do not promote a safe learning environment.

The impact on students of improper school-based arrests can be devastating. Studies have shown that getting arrested dramatically increases the likelihood of students dropping out of school and reduces students’ chances of succeeding academically. Students who are arrested and also have to appear in court are four times more likely to drop out of school, have lower standardized test scores, have reduced employment prospects and are far more likely to interact with the criminal justice system in the future. Additionally, children who witness fellow students being unnecessarily arrested tend to develop negative views or distrust of law enforcement, which may foster aconfrontational relationship between police and the communities they serve.

Busy school administrators may be tempted to rely on SROs for disciplining difficult students, and SROs, who may not be accustomed to working with youth, may unintentionally treat students like adults rather than children in school. Both the integrity of schools and the reputation of law enforcement agencies suffer as a result.

Given that police presence is increasingly commonplace in schools around the country, school districts must ensure that the relationship between police and the school communities they serve is respectful and productive. The ACLU white paper, which includes a model governance document, is designed to do just that.

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