The Obama Administration is asking schools and colleges across the nation to stop overrelying on campus-based police officers as disciplinarians. The ongoing misuse of law enforcement officers at schools can unnecessarily leave children with criminal records, warns the U.S. Department of Education, which last week released overnew recommendations on how school-based police officers should be trained and deployed throughout the country.
The overreliance of law enforcement at schools has been the subject of a year-long series of reports by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit, which revealed that about a quarter of all students in the Bay Area, roughly 250,000 children, attend school districts that fail to outline what an officer should or should not be responsible for while patrolling a school campus.
The Department of Education and Department of Justice sent letters to every school district and university across the country to outline best practices for the use of school resource officers.
“I know that many of you, like me, have become increasingly concerned about school-based law enforcement officers’ involvement in the administration of school discipline in many of our Nation’s schools,” wrote Secretary of Education John King, Jr. “While these officers – commonly known as school resource officers – can help provide a positive and safe learning environment and build trust between students and law enforcement officials in some situation, I am concerned about the potential for violations of students’ civil rights and unnecessary citations or arrests of students in schools.”
Campus officers, when used effectively, can serve as mentors and maintain safety at schools, according to King. However, he also said a lack of training and the absence of clear guidelines for campus-based officers can funnel students into a school-to-prison pipeline by unnecessarily leaving students with criminal records for misbehavior that could have been more appropriately handled by a school administrator or counselor.
“Some schools are simply turning misbehaving students over to [school resource officers], King said. “This can lead to citations or arrests and set students on a path to dropping out of school or even to prison.”
There are an estimated 20,000 school resource officers across the country that patrol nearly 20 percent of the nation’s schools, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers.
“School resource officers can be valuable assets in creating a positive school environment and keeping kids safe,” King said. “But we must ensure that school discipline is being handled by trained educators, not by law enforcement officers.”
The administration’s recommendations include a five-step plan to improve the use of police officers on school campuses. They are:
- Create and formalize a written agreement, or “memorandum of understanding (MOU),” between the district and the law enforcement agency the district contracts with. The agreement should outline the exact roles and responsibilities of the officers patrolling school campuses.
- Ensure that MOUs are constitutional
- Recruit effective school resource officers and school staff
- Keep school resource officers and personnel well trained
- Recognize good performance and continually evaluate personnel
The National Association of School Resource Officers, which offers training for school-based police officers, applauded the recommendations.
“Like Education Secretary King, we believe that administering formal school discipline belongs solely in the hands of educators,” NASRO Executive Secretary Mo Canady said in a statement. “Educators should be well trained to address behavioral issues through a variety of interventions that do not involve law enforcement officers.”
A year-long NBC Bay Area investigation into the use of police officers on school campuses found African-American students and students with disabilities are arrested at disproportionately higher rates at schools nationwide, including those in the Bay Area.
The Investigative Unit also revealed that many schools fail to outline the roles and responsibilities for law enforcement officers assigned to school campuses. Plus, the investigation found a lack of training for school resource officers in the Bay Area. While the Department of Justice recommends 40 hours of training for school-based officers across the country, the San Jose Department only provides 30 minutes of training to its officers, which are assigned to 41 schools across San Jose and Campbell.
As a result of the Investigative Unit series, the San Jose Police Department is now in the process of expanding training for those officers. The policy change represents a major shift in security that will be rolled out as part of a pilot program that promises to improve the safety of roughly 67,000 students across three school districts.
If you have a tip for the Investigative Unit, email TheUnit@nbcbayarea.com or call 888-996-TIPS. You can also email Investigative Reporter Bigad Shaban directly at Bigad.Shaban@nbcuni.com.