Rethinking police on campus

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: rethinking police on campus.

Many public school districts contract with local police or sheriff’s departments to provide SROs, as they’re known, School Resource Officers.

These officers watch for potential threats on campus, address criminal behavior, and build relationships with students and staff.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: But some SROs have faced criticism in recent years for mishandling situations—even treating some students abusively. With so much attention on reform in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, many school boards are reconsidering their campus policing policies.

WORLD Radio correspondent Laura Edghill reports.

LAURA EDGHILL, REPORTER: Mark Coil compares officers who work in schools to neighborhood cops like his own grandfather and great-grandfather. They both walked beats in Detroit in the early to mid-1900s and developed strong bonds with the communities they served.

COIL: They knew Al owned the bakery, and Sal owned the butcher shop, and they knew everybody well. And what does an SRO do? He’s consistent. He’s there every day and he knows his people because the school becomes his beat.

Coil followed in his family’s footsteps and is now deputy chief of police in Shelby Township, Michigan. He sees school resource officers as a vital link to the community.

COIL: I think the quintessential word in the SRO is “resource.” It’s the school resource officer. And when you have that conduit for the district and the child and the families to point to and say “that’s our guy, that’s our gal.” That is community outreach at its best.

Most schools try to work with the same officers over time so students can forge trusting relationships with them. The officers provide on-site security, handle criminal complaints, and even serve as guest experts in the classroom on topics like drug awareness and risk avoidance.

But trust doesn’t always form, and sometimes it breaks down.

Minority students in particular often view SROs with suspicion and fear. There’s a growing perception that officers disproportionately single out students of color for even minor infractions.

Many school leaders were already weighing the pros and cons of having a constant police presence on campus when recent events tipped the scales in critics’ favor.

School boards in Minneapolis, Denver, and Portland, Oregon, all voted this month to dissolve their contracts with local law enforcement. Andrea Valderrama heads the board at Portland’s David Douglas School District.

VALDERAMA: I will say that the action is long overdue. What I’m hearing from my students, my staff, and my community out here in David Douglas is that police officers do not contribute to an environment of safety.

Valderrama said that in a recent school safety survey, the largely Hispanic and Asian community requested more wrap-around services, restorative justice, and mental health support in lieu of on-campus police presence. Other districts are requesting similar changes, urging their school boards to shift millions in funding from law enforcement to alternative supports. And while Portland school officials don’t cite specific incidents with their officers, others around the country do.

Last year, two SROs in Florida were caught on video pushing a defiant high school girl to the ground. Another in North Carolina was filmed repeatedly slamming a young middle school boy onto the floor. Vance County Sheriff Curtis Brame quickly suspended the officer responsible for the North Carolina incident.

BRAME: I was stunned. I was shocked. Seeing a child that small reminded me of one of my grandkids.

Some incidents have even involved elementary age students. In 2015, parents sued an SRO in Kentucky for handcuffing their 8-year-old son with special needs in response to a disciplinary problem.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the case on behalf of the Kentucky boy’s family. Attorney Matt Coles explained the basis for the suit during an interview on the TODAY show.

COLES: We don’t think handcuffs at the biceps are the way to treat an 8-year-old child, even if the child is emotionally distraught.

But those who support police on campus say officer misconduct is usually due to a lack of training.

Mo Canady heads the National Association of School Resource Officers. He worries districts are cutting ties with local police as a knee-jerk reaction.

CANADY: I think that when a school district or law enforcement agency makes the decision to push out SROs, they’re getting rid of what is potentially their best community-based policing tool. It may be broken, or bent, or busted. I believe we can help repair whatever those problems may be if they just give us an opportunity.

The absence of SROs also raises concerns about school safety. Without officers on campus, parents and community members worry about school shootings and violent altercations that could escalate quickly.

Last year in Portland, an SRO at Parkrose High School tackled a suicidal student as he pulled a shotgun from under his trench coat. The officer is credited with averting what could have been a much larger tragedy. 

Deputy Chief Mark Coil says ultimately, the problems don’t stem from having an officer on campus. They arise from an individual’s intentions.

COIL: Any law enforcement officer that’s engaged in a service, whatever that service they provide, if they do that with an ill heart or an ill mind, that’s when we see problems. The vast majority of great SROs go out and do their job because they’re committed and they have the moral and ethical character to go do their job.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Laura Edghill.

(Andreas Fuhrmann/The Record Searchlight via AP, File) In this Dec. 9, 2013, file photo, a school resource officer in Anderson, Calif., walks a middle school student back to class. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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