Video of a police officer violently arresting a student who wouldn’t leave her desk last month in South Carolina has intensified the debate over the role of police in schools — with at least one local group seeking their removal.
A survey of 22 local school districts found that most large districts have local police regularly serving as School Resource Officers in their buildings. Several other districts without SROs cite an open-door policy with their police departments.
Local police and national safety experts say the key to avoiding confrontations like the South Carolina case is choosing the right officers to work in schools and specifically training them how to de-escalate tense situations with teenagers.
But Racial Justice NOW!, a local parent organization that has worked closely with Dayton Public Schools on a variety of issues in the past year, argues that role is better filled by non-police intervention workers, suggesting that students would be more open with them than with police.
Zakiya Sankara Jabar, director of the group, cites trust barriers between police and black communities stemming from shootings in Ferguson, Mo.; Chicago, Cleveland and Beavercreek. She said the national Dignity in Schools campaign is currently crafting a letter to federal education officials, calling for the removal of police from schools.
“There seems to be an (out-sized) need to have security measures in urban schools, instead of a more holistic positive school climate,” Jabar said. “Things are too punitive and younger children internalize that. That’s a big reason why a lot of children become disengaged in schools.”
South Carolina sheriff’s deputy Ben Fields was fired in October after throwing a non-cooperative student and her desk to the ground, then forcefully dragging her across a classroom floor.
Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said Fields wasn’t trained by his organization, adding that the brief video shows the importance of training and technique.
“There really is not a national standard and there needs to be to some degree. This is probably the most unique assignment in law enforcement and it’s not for just anybody,” Canady said. “We train officers that if they’re in a setting like that where there are other students, you need to remove the audience. In many cases, that opens communication, and the student feels less motivated to act out without their peers present. You can get them talking to you and de-escalate the situation.”
School by school
Dayton-area schools take a variety of approaches, largely depending on the size of the district. The 10 largest districts in the area all have school resource officer or security officer programs, according to district officials.
Kettering and Huber Heights schools each have two SROs, supported by private security guards at the high school. Centerville and Northmont have three SROs, in part because their school districts straddle multiple police jurisdictions. Springboro, Miamisburg and Xenia each have one SRO. Beavercreek has an SRO program but was the only district to refuse to answer questions about it, citing “security protocols.”
Huber Heights Superintendent Susan Gunnell said the goal at her district is for SROs to help provide a safe school environment, but also to build positive relationships with students and teach safety-related classes.
“Our SRO’s have conducted classes on women’s self-defense for both staff and students,” Gunnell said. “They have provided information in classes on internet safety, anti-bullying and teen violence. And they have conducted parent meetings on internet safety.”
Mid-sized and smaller districts are less likely to have a formal SRO program, with Bellbrook and Trotwood-Madison among the exceptions. (Trotwood just restarted its program this fall.) Many districts, including Vandalia-Butler, Tipp City, Northridge and New Lebanon, have no contracted agreement but refer to an “open door policy” with their local police departments.
“They can come into the buildings anytime they want,” Vandalia-Butler Superintendent Brad Neavin said of local police. “They check in with the office, and they may want to walk the halls or come in during lunchtime and interact with the kids in a positive way.”
While most school districts contract with local police, Dayton Public Schools hires its own security officers, with 26 currently on staff, including two full-time at each high school.
Those officers must complete the 143-hour Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy’s private security basic training course and pass the test. That training — much less than what’s needed to become a police officer — earns them the city of Dayton’s Special Institutional Police License, which gives them arrest powers. They carry handcuffs but not firearms.
Richard Wright, associate director of safety and security for DPS, said none of his officers has made an arrest at school in the past few years. He said the approach is “hands-off” unless a student is harming himself, a classmate or a staff member.
“Our main objective is to discourage disruption to the educational process,” Wright said. “We’re not there to make arrests. Nobody’s there who’s gung-ho on trying to get a child in trouble.”There are hiccups, but I try to call the police as little as possible. If we can’t handle it, let’s ask what’s really going on? What’s the root problem, and let’s try to rectify that.”
DPS students interviewed about school security had few complaints other than questioning some morning metal detector procedures. Ponitz CTC senior Virginia Nsabimana said she hasn’t seen any DPS officers step over the line.
Thurgood Marshall High freshman Christian Peoples said the security officers are respectful, even when students don’t return the favor. Thurgood junior Justice Sheppard said officers get involved when there are fights, drug issues or students roaming the halls.
“They don’t try to use force — they just try to talk to us first, like with a warning or something,” Sheppard said.
David Johnson is in his 20th year as a DPS security officer, currently at Thurgood, and he said Wright and safety director Jamie Bullens, both former local police officers, require significant ongoing training even for veteran officers. But he agreed with Canady that it takes the right kind of person, with patience.
“When you go into a classroom to get a student — and I’ve gone in hundreds of times — you have to have a rapport,” Johnson said. “I don’t embarrass a student. I say, ‘Come on with me; whatever happened is over with.’ I’ve never had to drag a student out, and I’ve never felt unsafe. The students have to really trust you … that you’re not just trying to get them suspended.”
But Jabar said her Racial Justice NOW! group is concerned over how often students are suspended at DPS, and she pointed to a significant rise in August and September of this year, compared to the same period in 2014.
DPS officials said suspension decisions are made by principals and other administrators, not security officers, and have declined since 2012-13.
Two Kettering police officers serve as School Resource Officers, and SRO Wendy Miller said the officers take a three-tiered approach — investigating crime and enforcing the law when necessary, educating students on topics like drugs and alcohol or internet safety, and also serving as mentors.
“You’re dealing with children and some of them are very young, so you take that into consideration,” said Miller, who works primarily with middle school and elementary school students. “Just because something’s happened doesn’t mean we have to charge them and send them to court. We try to use other options besides arresting.”
Miller supports having designated SROs because they develop knowledge and trust with students and staff that other officers just visiting the building may not have.
“We’re also more up-to-date on training and legal standards relating to schools and juveniles,” Miller said. “A detective might have special training in violent crimes, so they’re the appropriate specialists there. We’re the specialists in schools.”
Kettering’s two SROs are traditional armed officers funded by the city, and Lt. Dan Gangwer said the police department hopes to have Miller and SRO Carla Sacher train more officers so they can fill in effectively when needed. A third position previously funded by the schools was discontinued.
The expense of staffing SROs has led to cutbacks in some districts. Valley View eliminated its SRO position because of cost, and Huber Heights temporarily cut one position in 2012-13 due to budget cuts. Fairborn hopes to be able to add a second SRO, and Trotwood’s city and schools are splitting the cost of their newly assigned SRO.
Kettering senior Erika Brandenburg said she appreciated the presence of SROs in the high school, and junior Dominic Moore called them “very respectful of the students.”
He credited resource officers with helping calm a potentially explosive situation earlier this year after controversy erupted when a group of students were flying Confederate flags from their trucks.
“The police have enforced those rules, but (students) respectfully said OK and took the flags down,” Moore said. “It could have gotten a little out of hand, but we ended up working it all out with them without too much tension.”
Junior Travis Malone said he’s talked to a few SROs, and he said the officers don’t intimidate students, adding that it gives him a “protected feeling. That’s nice to have around school, given all that goes on these days,” he said.
Suspensions a concern
Jabar said data is difficult to find on school-based arrests, but Racial Justice NOW and others worry about zero-tolerance policies and high rates of discipline in general in urban public schools.
From 2009-13, Dayton Public Schools averaged 6,634 suspensions per year in a district with roughly 14,000 students.
Jabar also pointed to federal data from the Schott Foundation report for 2015, which found that black male students in Ohio are suspended almost four times as often as white male students — a gap that is slightly above the national average.
The foundation, which advocates for equity in education, argues that schools continue to use out-of-school suspensions as a disciplinary tool even though research suggests they serve only to reinforce negative student behavior.
Canady, of NASRO, countered with Department of Justice data showing that juvenile arrests on the whole dropped almost 50 percent in the 1990s and 2000s.
Local School Resource Officers said the key is building relationships and being proactive so a situation doesn’t escalate and a suspension or arrest isn’t necessary.
Johnson said those efforts at Thurgood Marshall mean students will often confide in him if they hear a fight is brewing.
And Miller told the story of a middle schooler in Kettering who endured serious family turmoil and “could have gone either way.” After getting support from her and others at school, the girl is getting good grades, made a school team and now emails Miller regularly.
“It’s important that kids see you not as the bad guy, so to speak,” said Sacher, Kettering’s other SRO. “If you come into a situation where you’ve built a relationship and can communicate with them, anything that goes wrong is easier to work through.”