School Policing Reform: Much Needed and Long Overdue

Law enforcement officers have become commonplace in public schools throughout the United States over the last two decades. However, law enforcement officers who are permanently assigned to schools – called school resource officers (SROs) – can have negative impacts on students and the educational environment. Using North Carolina as a model, Jason Langberg, an education and juvenile justice advocate, makes the case in this guest post that school districts lack adequate information, regulations, and accountability for SROs. Langberg highlights school districts around the country that are beginning to reform their school policing policies and practices and can serve as models for districts in North Carolina and beyond.

School Policing Reform

By Jason Langberg

Following the “tough on crime” movement that started during the 1980s and a series of high profile school shootings during the 1990s, North Carolina joined most other states around the country in passing zero tolerance policies and deploying more law enforcement officers to patrol public schools on a full-time basis – called school resource officers (SROs). From 1996-97 to 2008-09, the number of SROs in North Carolina increased by over 249% – from 243 to 849. Many school districts also began employing their own security staff and contracting to have private security guards.

However, there’s little evidence to support the notion that SROs make schools safer. In fact, research suggests that an SRO presence can only increase arrests and court referrals for minor misconduct (i.e., normal adolescent misbehavior), and consequently the collateral consequences of court-involvement for youth (e.g., deportation, ineligibility for financial aid, prohibition from participation in high school athletics, eviction, and reduced employment opportunities). During 2011, 43% of all delinquency complaints in North Carolina were school-based. Thousands of students became court-involved for minor misbehavior that should’ve been treated at “teachable moments.” During the 2010-11 state fiscal year, there were over 2,000 school-based delinquency complaints filed against students age 15 and younger for disorderly conduct, and over 1,000 for truancy. Moreover, Black students were disproportionately referred to court. They represented 26.8% of North Carolina public school students, but were subjected to 46.2% of school-based delinquency complaints.

To make matters worse, North Carolina is the only state that treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when they are charged with criminal offenses and then denies them the possibility of return to the juvenile system. Thus, students age 16 and older who are arrested or referred to court by SROs directly enter into the adult criminal system.

Additionally, nearly all SROs carry pepper spray and/or a TASER, which can seriously injure students. Last year, the Town of Cary, North Carolina, and the Wake County (N.C.) Board of Education settled a lawsuit for $12,000 involving a student with disabilities whose lung collapsed after he was shot with a TASER in the school nurse’s office. In 2010, after a Raleigh, North Carolina, police officer used pepper spray in a crowded cafeteria, 16 students were treated for injuries; four of them were taken to the hospital.

SROs also divert valuable resources. For example, each of the approximately 60 SROs in the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) costs taxpayers over $80,000 per year. Funding for SROs could be used for more effective violence prevention efforts that support the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students.

Finally, SROs can damage the learning environment by contributing to an atmosphere of intimidation, hostility, suspicion, and control, and by undermining the authority of teachers and administrators.

Despite their obsession with “accountability” for students, teachers, and schools, state and local policymakers in North Carolina have taken an “ignorance is bliss” approach to school policing. No data about SROs has been published since 2009. Currently, the only school policing data that’s regularly maintained is data on school-based delinquency complaints, which is collected by the North Carolina Division of Juvenile Justice. Neither the state nor most school districts maintain data on school-based arrests, school-based adult court referrals (i.e., complaints against students age 16 and older), or the use of force by SROs. Moreover, there has never been a study of the impact of SROs in North Carolina.

In addition to failing to collect and publish data, most school districts also lack adequate cooperative agreements or memorandums of understanding (MOU) with the law enforcement agencies providing SRO coverage. Specifically, the agreements and MOU lack the following:

  • detailed training requirements (e.g., training in adolescent development and psychology, working with students who have disabilities, cultural competency, safe restraint techniques, de-escalation, students’ rights, and utilizing community resources and alternatives to court referrals);
  • limitations on arrests and court referrals (e.g., no arrests or referrals for minor offenses or manifestations of students’ disabilities);
  • limitations on the use of force (e.g., no use of handcuffs, pepper spray, and TASERs unless there’s an imminent threat of seriously bodily injury); and
  • complaint procedures for students, parents, and staff to use when SROs violate the agreements or MOU, or otherwise act inappropriately.

Models for Reform

School districts around the country that faced similar problems are establishing models for North Carolina and other states to follow.

In 2004, in Clayton County, Georgia, a cooperative agreement was developed that ensures misdemeanor delinquent acts (e.g., fighting, disrupting school, disorderly conduct, most obstruction of police, and most criminal trespass) do not result in the filing of a complaint, unless the student commits a third or subsequent similar offense during the school year, and the principal conducts a review of the student’s behavior plan. Pursuant to the agreement, youth first receive warnings and after a second offense, they’re referred to mediation or school conflict training programs. Elementary school students can’t be referred to law enforcement for “misdemeanor delinquent acts” at all.

The protocol was implemented after Judge Steven Teske, a juvenile court judge in the county, recognized that referrals to law enforcement skyrocketed as soon as SROs were stationed at local schools. Judge Teske spearheaded a team of people from the juvenile justice system, law enforcement, the local school system, and social services groups to create the agreement. The team reviewed data, solicited input, and educated stakeholders on best practices. The team also created a multidisciplinary panel to assess the needs of students at risk for referral to law enforcement, and to refer the students to services outside of the school, such as family therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and wrap-around services. After the implementation of the agreement, rates of misbehavior, dangerous weapons on campus, and school-based court referrals decreased, and graduation rates increased. In 2010, Judge Brian Huff led efforts to implement a similar protocol in Jefferson County, Alabama.

Last year, in response to pressure from the Black Organizing Project, the ACLU of Northern California, and Public Counsel, the Oakland School Police Department passed a complaints process and reports policy. There are multiple ways for citizens to file complaints, including online, via mail, and in-person. Anonymous complaints are permitted. Investigations must be conducted and written reports to complaints generally must be made within 45 days. Complainants can appeal reports to the superintendent, who must investigate the appeal and issue written findings. Complainants may then appeal to the Board of Education, which must also issue written findings. Forms were created in six languages for the community to report officers behaving inappropriately, to report officers who handled situations exceptionally well, and to make general recommendations. Forms and flyers explaining the process must be available in every school in the district. Finally, the Office of the Chief of Police must prepare a detailed, semi-annual complaint statistical summary.

Last month, the Denver Public Schools and the Denver Police Department entered into a new agreement about SROs. The new agreement arose out of concerns that police were being used to handle minor disciplinary matters and pressure from Padres y Jóvenes Unidos, a people of color-led grassroots organization working for educational excellence, racial justice for youth, immigration rights, and healthcare for all. The agreement makes a distinction between disciplinary issues and crimes, and requires SROs to treat them differently. Specifically, SROs are supposed to arrest or issue citations only in cases when it is absolutely necessary; otherwise, disciplinary problems should be left to educators. The agreement also accomplished the following:

  • provides guidelines for reporting ticketing and arrests to principals and parents;
  • requires SROs to meet with community stakeholders at least once per semester;
  • advises officers on how to deal with students who have disabilities;
  • sets annual training requirements for officers working in schools (e.g., training in adolescent development, cultural competency, practices proven to improve school climate, and the creation of safe spaces for LGBTQ students); and
  • emphasizes restorative justice approaches.

Initiating Reforms in North Carolina

There are signs that similar reforms may be on the horizon for North Carolina. In November 2010, Judge Huff spoke in Raleigh, and Judge Teske has spoken in North Carolina on multiple occasions. In August 2012, Strategies for Youth (SFY) provided training for SROs in Charlotte. SFY is a national organization that seeks to improve police/youth interactions, to advance the cause of training public safety officers in the science of child and youth development and mental health, and to support communities partnering to promote strong police/youth relationships.

According to Lisa Thurau, the Founder and Executive Director of SFY:

SFY was invited to provide the Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) SROs a two-day intensive Policing the Teen Brain in School as part of a five-day training of SROs. SFY first conducted interviews with SROs and command staff to understand the challenges SROs perceive and the skills they seek to interact effectively with youth. SFY reviewed data on the reasons for arrests and spoke with youth advocates who represent youth in school-based arrests…SFY customized the training it offered based on this assessment. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ SROs were also invited, and together 65 officers were trained.

The first day of the training focused on the nature of teen brains and was presented by Dr. Stacy Drury, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, who used lecture, slides, and films to describe normative adolescent development, how to recognize and respond effectively to compromised youth, youth who are chronically exposed to trauma, and youth who have receptive and expressive disabilities. Officers learned that youth perceive, process, and respond differently. They also learned to watch their BLT, SFY’s mnemonic device to help officers understand both youth and their own behavior, language, and timing, and how it affects interactions. At the end of the first day, a group of youth participated in skits and was “interviewed” by the psychiatrist as to why they will or won’t cooperate with a police officer.

The second day of training featured “nurture” facts, including demographic and cultural factors that influence youth interactions with peers and authority, juvenile law for law enforcement, as well as an interactive session in which officers identify what responses work best for youth who offend, including which restorative justice practices and diversion efforts they view most effective.

The officers’ response to the training evaluation was overwhelmingly positive. Today, Sergeant David Schwob, of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, reports that their data indicate a 25% reduction in arrests.

Unfortunately, policy reforms like the ones in Clayton County, Oakland, and Denver have not been initiated anywhere in North Carolina. One can only surmise possible reasons for the lack of progress:

  • austerity and resource starvation;
  • misinformation about the frequency of serious acts of school violence;
  • ignorance or indifference to the impacts of SROs;
  • reluctance to create standards that may actually be enforceable and create accountability;
  • fear of appearing “soft on crime”;
  • a view that some children are “bad apples” who need to be removed from the students “who want to learn”; and
  • policymakers who aren’t from low-wealth communities or communities of color that are most impacted by the misconduct of law enforcement officers, and thus, feel unaffected and comfortable with the status quo.

As the reactionary and misguided push for more SROs gains momentum in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, it’s more important than ever that school districts have cooperative agreements or MOU in place to ensure that SROs are well-trained, accountable, and properly limited. Otherwise, the school-to-prison pipeline will grow even larger. School district leaders owe it to students to start paying more attention to the impact of SROs and how to improve school policing. They can start by studying the reforms taking place across the country.

Thoughts, comments?  Please share them here or contact Jason at


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