The Obama Administration is releasing new guidelines concerning the use of campus-based police officers across the country’s more than 95,000 public schools. The push for national reform comes in the wake of a more than a year-long NBC Bay Area investigation, which exposed how the misuse of school police officers can leave children with criminal records for what some describe as just childish misbehavior.
The Department of Education and the Department of Justice released the new recommendations in September, which outline how school-based police officers should be trained and deployed. The Administration hopes educators accept the recommendations, but some Bay Area school districts say they won’t be making any changes.
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Investigative Unit Helps Spark Push for National Reform
The recommendations implore school districts to provide adequate training for school-based police officers and to clearly outline the roles and responsibilities of those officers in writing. The Investigative Unit found nearly 230,000 Bay Area students attend schools that regularly place law enforcement on campus without having a detailed agreement to outline the roles and responsibilities of those officers.
“School resource officers should not be engaged in discipline day-to-day,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John King Jr. “Our worry is that in some districts, school resource officers are being asked to do the day-to-day discipline work that really should be the responsibility of educators who are trained on how to create supportive school climates for kids.”
The Department of Education said that before releasing its new national guidelines, it had been monitoring and tracking NBC Bay Area’s series of reports on the misuse of school police officers. King described the findings as “distressing.”
As the Investigative Unit first revealed last year, cuts in education funding have forced some schools to reduce staff, such as counselors, and rely more heavily on campus police officers to discipline students.
Across the country, 1.6 million students attend a school with a campus police officer, but not a single counselor, according to data compiled by the Department of Education.
King said the over-reliance on school resource officers as disciplinarians can harm students and leave them with criminal records for what some might call typical childish misbehavior.
Students with Disabilities, African-Americans Disproportionately Impacted
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit found African-American students and students with disabilities are arrested at disproportionately high rates at schools in the Bay Area and across the nation.
Last year, the Investigative Unit collected and analyzed data from 20 of some of the largest school districts in the Bay Area, home to 374,266 students. The investigation found 1,841 students were referred to police and 198 students were arrested during the 2013-2014 school year.
While children with disabilities made up only 10 percent of the student population, they accounted for 27 percent of the students referred to law enforcement, and 23 percent of arrests. African-American students made up just 9 percent of the population, and were referred to police 16 percent of the time and arrested 24 percent of the time, the data analysis showed during the same time period. National averages were about the same, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection.
“Once students get involved in the criminal justice system, that can often lead to further problems down the road for them and ultimately lead to prison,” King said. “So one of the things we want to do is make sure that students aren’t facing arrest for what really should be classroom management issues that are dealt with by principals and teachers.”
King said he hopes districts will adapt their practices in light of several high-profile incidents involving campus-based officers.
Children in Handcuffs
In Michigan last year, a 7-year-old boy was handcuffed at an after-school program. His outraged mom can be heard yelling at the officer in cell phone video capturing the incident.
In Kentucky, a school resource officer is now at the center of a federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU after putting handcuffs on an 8-year-old boy for misbehaving in class. Video shows the officer securing the handcuffs on the boy’s arms when they don’t fit around his small wrists.
At least four other elementary school students were handcuffed at the same school district in roughly the same year, according to records obtained by the ACLU.
“We’ve had incidents around the country where a school resource officer approaching an incident in the same fashion they would with an adult on the street has caused harm to students,” King said. “So we know that’s a problem and we’ve got to change that.”
NBC Bay Area’s investigation found other questionable incidents involving school resource officers.
Adrian Crosby, a 13-year-old student with autism at San Jose’s Bret Harte Middle School, was arrested after etching his initials onto a school sidewalk. Crosby wasn’t placed in handcuffs, but he was given a juvenile citation, officially giving him a criminal record.
At the same school district, San Jose Unified, high school freshman Kai Segura was arrested for doing summersaults across the quad during a rainy afternoon.
Despite Washington’s recommendations to rein in the responsibilities of school officers, some school districts are resisting change. Of the 47 Bay Area districts that regularly rely on law enforcement to provide security on campus, the Investigative Unit discovered 20 of those school districts, over 40 percent, fail to outline the exact roles and responsibilities of those officers. NBC Bay Area contacted those districts to find out whether educators now plan to follow the Obama Administration’s new guidelines. The Investigative Unit discovered that 15 of those 20 school districts still have no immediate plans to follow those recommendations.
“They’re making a mistake,” King said. “They should look at the letter and look at the resources we have provided and try to build more constructive roles for the school resource officers in schools. Ultimately the risk that they’re taking is that they’re going to have [school resource officers] involved in incidents where they shouldn’t be, and that’s a litigation risk for districts and ultimately a risk to their long-term success for their students.”