What’s wrong with the way schools use police officers?

A body camera used by Des Moines Police Department school resource officers is worn by Sgt. Jason Halifax in Des Moines, Iowa. CREDIT: AP/CHARLIE NEIBERGALL
A body camera used by Des Moines Police Department school resource officers is worn by Sgt. Jason Halifax in Des Moines, Iowa. CREDIT: AP/CHARLIE NEIBERGALL

There are as many as 17,000 school resource officers in schools across the country, the most recent data shows. The number of these officers has increased throughout the past 15 years. Although officers may be an asset in some circumstances, the way many schools are using them now — to control students who misbehave — is pushing more students out of school and into the criminal justice system, U.S. Department of Education officials say.

On Wednesday, department officials announced new letters to K-12 schools and colleges as well as rubrics offering guidance on how to use school resource officers in a way that doesn’t endanger students’ civil rights.

The guidance comes after recent incidents of extreme student discipline, such as an officer throwing a South Carolina student across the room and slamming a Texas student onto the ground, have called educators’, administrators’, and school resource officers’ judgement into question.

“If students are to learn to their maximum potential, they must be safe in their schools and on their college campuses, but with that safety must come the safeguarding of students’ civil rights,” said John King, secretary of the Education Department, in a call with reporters. “We must better equip educators to address misbehavior and allow students to learn and grow from their mistakes.”


Instead of simply turning over misbehaving students to school resource officers, the department says officers need to have a positive relationship with students and focus on safety concerns.

Schools need to agree on expectations for officers

On the press call, King pointed out that school resource officers are not supposed to be managers of classroom behavior — an important point given the fact that, too often, officers detain children for minor acts of misbehavior. And sometimes students are handcuffed for simply being children.

The South Carolina student who was thrown from her desk by an officer, for example, simply refused to start her work in class and leave the classroom. Instead of de-escalating the situation, the presence of the school resource officer only appeared to escalate it.

There are plenty of other examples of this type of situation. A middle school student was detained after throwing skittles on a bus. A 7-year-old boy was handcuffed after he cried and screamed after a bullying incident. A 6-year-old girl was handcuffed and told to sit under the stairs after allegedly taking candy from a teacher. And there are more.

“With that safety must come the safeguarding of students’ civil rights.”

What these children have in common is that they are all children of color. Research out of Stanford University has shown that teachers may use harsher discipline on a black student when they misbehave a second time than they would for a white student. Officers are also more likely to be involved in the discipline of a student if that student is black. This information suggests that although officers need training to recognize their own biases, so do teachers.


One of the problems contributing to these incidents is that many schools don’t have any idea as to what best practices are. The rubric provided by the Department of Education, called the SECURe Local Implementation Rubric, may help administrators, educators, and local law enforcement officials understand how to use school resource officers wisely, if a school chooses to have officers at all.

First, the parties would gather information on discipline incidents, arrests, and ticketing and research best practices for school and law enforcement partnerships. Then the school and law enforcement officers would draft a memorandum of understanding or MOU for short. The MOU would provide clear language that parents, teachers, and students can understand and would prohibit officers from engaging in enforcement of school codes of conduct or student discipline. Instead, the safety needs of the school would be addressed. MOUs would remind officers that they can’t discriminate against students due to race, sex, religion, language status, and disability.

School resource officers need more training

One of the other common criticisms of school resource officers is that they may misunderstand the behavior of students because they aren’t trained in understanding how misbehavior may be a reflection of typical teenage rebellion against authority or of behavioral challenges a student may have.

Only 12 states require student-specific training for officers in schools, according to The Atlantic’s reporting last fall. Law enforcement officers are more likely to see a classroom disruption as criminal conduct even though no one’s safety is at risk, a 2009 study from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville found. Some of these situations involved incidents such as a student refusing to sit down. The study also found that students in schools with officers were almost three times more likely to be arrested.

“We have 1.6 million students with sworn law enforcement officers and no school counselor.”

In the department’s recruitment section of its rubric, it makes it clear that schools resource officers need to have an understanding of “developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed practices.” Ron Davis, Director of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services for the U.S. Department of Justice argued that by having trained school resource officers in schools, it is less likely schools will have to rely on officers who aren’t as well versed in developmentally appropriate ways of interacting with students.


“I say this as former police chief that the decision is local. But what is something to think about is why we need to there to be a model to provide best practices, because if you take SROs out of the school, you’re still not taking police out of the schools, because they still have to respond to a disturbance,” Davis said. “What you don’t have then is an officer that has an understanding of the teen brain … You don’t want someone putting handcuffs on kid, because it’s a battery or it technically sounds that way.”

The guidelines provided by the department also outline the importance of continuous training throughout an officer’s time at the school and the need for schools to examine an officer’s past disciplinary and legal history. For instance, the officer who threw a South Carolina officer across the room — nicknamed “Officer Slam” by students — is being sued by a different student who claimed he violated his civil rights and was sued in 2007 by a man who said he slammed him to the ground, kicked him, and maced him after he came to the man’s building to investigate a noise complaint.

Schools need additional services in place of police

As King pointed out during the call, schools’ priorities are often out of whack. Although schools continue to hire school resource officers, they aren’t hiring enough school counselors.

“We have 1.6 million students with sworn law enforcement officers and no school counselor and we have said that is a mistake. It is a reflection of mistaken choices about the allocation of resources,” King said.

This is why many youth advocates support a community school model where social services are available for children at or near the school campus. This can include anything from mental health services to computer labs that remain open long after the school day ends. Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Oakland have all embraced community school models, and Democratic nominee for president Hillary Clinton has advocated to expand the approach across the country.

“Let’s create more community schools, more partnerships between schools and services and nonprofit organizations. Let’s pledge that we’ll give children who need it the mental health services that they deserve,” Clinton said in a speech before the American Federation of Teachers in July.

The community needs to be more involved

The department also focused on community stakeholders, saying that the community should be part of the process of drafting MOUs and recruiting officers. It emphasized the importance of officers understanding the community the school is operating in, and recommended that community stakeholders should be involved in the interview process.

When asked whether these positive relationships lead to better safety in schools, Davis said it’s still unclear whether that is the case.

“There is evidence of community policing that where police and community have a relationship and there is trust, the community, students, and families become co-producers of public safety. What has not been measured, is does it translate to increased safety? We need to better understand the role it plays,” Davis said.