Think back, if you’re as old as I am then think way back, to when you were a kid in school. In my day, at least, when kids did something stupid they got a detention or got sent to the principal’s officer for a swat from old woody or got to spend a few Saturdays with some quiet reflection time.
Times have changed with the introduction of police in schools nationwide though. Things that used to be handled in school with a usually-reasonable degree of, despite what they told you about permanent records, temporary discipline are now handled as life-altering criminal cases complete with handcuffs, tasers, mace, arrests, court, jail, criminal records, and all the other grief that comes with being swallowed by the US criminal justice system.
The use of sworn police officers in US schools has skyrocketed in the last 10 years over concerns heightened by rare, but high profile, school shooting incidents like Columbine. These officers, often referred to as “School Resource Officers”, are typically pulled from the ranks of patrol officers who were originally trained to deal with adult suspects, not children.
While some departments actually do try to select officers with the proper temperament for dealing with children and commit them to additional training to transition from aggressive crime-fighting on the streets to patrolling the hallways of a school… others use School Resource Officer programs as a place to send problematic officers, a worst-than-desk-duty assignment to send the cops that other cops don’t want to work with anymore, and send them there with no additional training.
In those places, again in the name of “school safety”, we have been turning our schools into something more resembling prison camps, mini police states, complete with lock-downs, spot searches, armed officers, and harsh punishments for minor offenses. If we needed a reminder of this, New York City NY with its 5,000+ armed and sworn “school safety agents” happily obliged, as Bob Herbert with the New York Times explains.In March of 2009 two 6th grade students were cuffed and arrested for writing on desks with erasable markers as they were returning to clean the desks as directed by their teacher.In February 2010 another student, a 12 year old girl, was frogwalked out of school in handcuffs to the local precinct for the same offense as well.In November 2009 NYC settled suit for $55,000 with a 16-year-old who suffered injuries when a “school safety agent” kicked open a bathoom stall door which slammed into his head. Even though the student did nothing wrong, the officer just said “That’s life. It’ll stop bleeding”
The list of incidents described by Herbert continues with even more stories of abuse in his article about a class-action lawsuit filed by the NY ACLU against New York City over the mistreatment of children in schools by these “School Safety Agents”… including one story about a 5-year-old child in kindergarten handcuffed and shipped off to a psych ward for acting out in class in 2008.
But, if you’ve been following the National Police Misconduct Statistics and Reporting Project for a while you’ll know that this isn’t a uniquely “New York” problem, or even a big-city problem. In fact, over the last 10 months the NPMSRP tracked 52 police misconduct incidents involving school resource officers or regular duty officers who were patrolling schools, including elementary schools.
In fact, there have been 16 incidents recorded in the first couple of months of this year alone, most of these involving sexual misconduct with students. In fact, most cases of police misconduct involving school resource officers that are tracked by the NPMSRP involve criminal sexual acts against students ranging from sending sexually-oriented text messages via cell phone to outright sexual assaults.
Dolton Illinois, for example, isn’t a big city by any means with 48 officers in a department that serves around 24,000 people. But Dolton serves as a well-known example that that illustrate how some departments are lax about who they place in schools. After all, Dolton Illinois is where police officer Christopher Lloyd, who was involved in the questionable shooting death of his ex-wife’s husband during his previous stint with the Robbins Illinois PD, was placed in a school for developmentally challenged children where he was caught on camera assaulting a 15-year-old student over a minor dress code violation in May of 2009.
Yet, despite the story making national news, ill-supervised and ill-trained school resource officers continue to make the news. For example, some of the other cases tracked in just the last few months include:In March 2010 Boise Idaho police officer Stephen Young, assigned as a school resource officer for 5 years, was arrested on allegations that he sexually assaulted at least 5 different infants, none of whom were related to him. Police are still investigating to determine if there were more victims but Young was able to retire, and thus will keep his pension, one week before his arrest.Also in March of this year, Providence School Resource Officer Robert J. Hamlin Jr was arrested on two counts of conspiracy to deliver cocaine in a drug bust that caught two other officers as well. Counselors were made available to several of the schools he worked at to address concerns by students who said they trusted him as a role model.In February 2010 Searcy Arkansas police officer Hamilton Riley, assigned as a school resource officer at Ahlf Junior High School, was arrested at 1:00am when he was caught inside the bedroom of a 16-year-old girl with whom he was rumored to have an illicit relationship with. Instead of providing counselors, this school reportedly reacted by threatening kids with detention if they talked about the incident in school.In February 2010 an unnamed Memphis Tennessee police officer assigned as a school resource officer at a local high school was suspended while under investigation after a 17-year-old student accused him of forcibly raping her. Students say they’re not surprised as they see officers do questionable things all the time. Since then, Memphis Police have been criticized by the Memphis Schools superintendent for allegedly arresting children for looking at them the wrong way during what the MPD describes as a “crack-down on school crimes… meanwhile the MPD officer accused of rape is still under investigation a month later pending forensic testing results with no charges filed to date.
While it’s unlikely that many school districts will rethink the approach of placing police officers in schools and police departments will be reluctant to relinquish that expansion of authority and revenue that school resource officer programs bring, it’s clear that at least schools and police departments must stop thinking of schools as a place to put their problematic officers out to pasture.Additionally, law enforcement agencies should retrain officers or specifically recruit officers for school duty in order to ensure that they don’t apply aggressive tactics learned in the academy for use against adults on the streets to children in schools where those tactics are excessive and result in unnecessary injuries and arrests.
Finally, school resource programs must have additional oversight that is tailored to watch for inappropriate relationships between officers and under-aged children that also monitor for unnecessary aggression or arrests since many of these programs don’t have the same reporting and oversight requirements that officers on the street have to deal with.
Placing officers at schools bring not only the risk of harm to the students that are unnecessarily arrested or victimized by problematic police officers, but they can also risk the trust that police work so hard to cultivate with students. Each story reported doesn’t only violate the victim cited, but also every child in that school where there officer worked as well.
After all, where are children, some of the most vulnerable members of our society, going to turn to for help if they are shown in real life that they cannot trust the police? Ask yourself, if you were one of these kids in these stories, who would you turn to for help first? A police officer, or a local gang looking to recruit new members?
Again, we must ask, since law enforcement agencies won’t… what did your local school resource officer teach your child in school today?