Police in schools: Why are they there?
Tens of thousands of them patrol American schools every day. They are law enforcers. They are mediators. They are educators.
This week, a school resource officer in Columbia, South Carolina, was captured on a video that’s been replayed across the nation. The video shows him forcefully yanking down a 16-year-old female student, then flinging her across the floor before her arrest. The student allegedly refused to leave her desk.
Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields has been suspended without pay and removed from Spring Valley High School since the Monday incident, according to Richland County Sheriff Leon Lett.
Investigators will try to answer a number of questions, including what preceded the takedown, if Fields acted appropriately, and whether the officer should have been put in that position in the first place.
Some 43% of all U.S. public schools — including 63% of middle and 64% of high schools — had such officers on their grounds during the 2013-2014 school year, the National Center for Education Statistics noted in May. This includes more than 46,000 full-time and 36,000 part-time officers.
School resource officers, or SROs, supervise lunchrooms, coach sports, promote drug and alcohol awareness and become confidants to teens who might have never thought they’d befriend a police officer. SROs may build relationships at a key time in many young people’s lives.
Officers can ‘break down these barriers’
“It breaks down these barriers where the law enforcement officers are seen as an enemy,” said Michael Allison, a Virginia high school principal and president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “In the majority of cases around the country, that’s what school resource officers are doing every day.”
Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, said it takes a special kind of officer.
“That’s one of the most unique jobs in law enforcement and it takes a very unique individual who understands that to some degree students have a different way about them sometimes,” he said. “And you know, they’re going to say and do things that we might not like, but are not necessarily criminal in nature.”
Curtis Lavarello is as big an advocate as you’ll find for school resource officers.
For 18 years in South Florida, he was one of them, working with teenagers, educators and community leaders. He is now executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, an organization that offers training to school districts and law enforcement agencies nationwide.
“Hundreds of times in my police career,” Lavarello said, he saw instances in which a student had refused to listen to a teacher.
But just because an officer is called into a classroom to help doesn’t mean he should have been, Lavarello said. And it doesn’t necessarily mean he should make an arrest.
If officers are put in such a situation, it can be better addressed than it was in Columbia, Lavarello said.
“We saw a pretty routine disciplinary issue become a criminal issue in just a matter of minutes,” he said. “(This scenario) can be handled so simply, and it escalated needlessly.”
In light of the arrest, some people are calling for an examination of the school resource officer’s function.
“We really do have to take a look at this because they are arresting more people in the schools than in the streets,” the Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III of the National Action Network said on CNN. “That cannot be.”
School resource officers are ‘a hybrid’
Sandy Hook, Columbine, Red Lake. Those are the names of U.S. schools that became sites of massacres, and also spurred many to think about law enforcement officers rubbing elbows with students in school hallways, classrooms and common spaces.
School resource officers have the same training, the same capabilities and the same resources as other members of their police or sheriff’s department. A 2013 Congressional Research Service report described SROs as “a hybrid educational, correctional and law enforcement officer.”
The report notes SROs not only enforce laws on campus, but they also act as a “problem-solver and liaison,” further local crime prevention efforts and teach students how to avoid becoming crime victims.
But sometimes school resource officers can’t be Mr. Nice Guy.
“If there’s a need to arrest a student, then that student … would have to be arrested, just as if it was out in the street,” said Lt. Curtis Wilson, of the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.
Are police called on too much in schools?
The student taken down by Fields was arrested on a charge of disturbing schools, Wilson said. That’s the same charge facing a female classmate who stuck up for her, according to the latter girl’s mother, Doris Ballard.
Wilson has said the student who refused to leave her desk was not armed. Videos of her arrest don’t show what led up to the arrest.
In an interview with CNN, Lett said a different video shows the student striking and punching the officer before the officer threw her to the ground.
“It showed the officer as he puts his hands on her, her punching him,” Lett said. “But again, that doesn’t justify some of the actions that we’ve seen from the officer afterwards, and that’s what i have to deal with. Just because she was wrong in what she was doing doesn’t make what he was doing completely right also.”
Canady of the National Association of School Resource Officers, speaking before Lett discussed the new video, said: “One of the questions in my mind would be what brought this about. You know, the part we’re not getting to see is everything that happened that led up to this. … Was it a criminal act that occurred that brought the SRO into the environment, or was it a school discipline situation?”
Sunny Hostin, a former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst, said what happened before is largely irrelevant because the deputy’s actions were not “reasonable and necessary to control the situation.”
CNN law enforcement analyst Harry Houck cautioned against jumping to conclusions. If an officer — even one in a school — decides to make an arrest, he or she “can use whatever force is necessary,” he said.
Both Hostin and Houck question if law enforcement officers are being called in too often to intervene in what would otherwise be behavioral issues at schools.
“Too often, these teachers in these schools are calling on the cops because they have a disruptive student in the classroom,” Houck said. “This is not a cop’s job.”
Sending in officer ‘something you may have to do’
As principal of Hopewell High School some 30 miles south of Richmond, Virginia, and the head of a group of principals, Michael Allison knows very well the types of challenges educators face on behavioral issues. He knows, ultimately, it is a principal’s “responsibility to maintain order and control of the school.”
At Spring Valley High, the student who was arrested received directives to get up from her desk from a teacher and an assistant principal before the school resource officer was called. Lavarello questioned if the school staff used all the strategies at their disposal.
“Before you even deployed the school resource officer, (staff could have) removed the … audience there … and allow them to go to the library or some other area of the school,” he said. “And then, (they could) try to de-escalate it one-on-one, (so) she doesn’t have to do this in front of her peers.”
Allison said school administrators and resource officers both undergo special training to deal with a variety of situations. It’s all with the understanding that a school is its own unique environment.
But there are times, he said, when there’s no choice but to forcibly remove a student.
“That’s not something that you may want to do as an administrator,” Allison said. “But that’s something that you may have to do.”
By Greg Botelho and Ralph Ellis, CNN
CNN’s Dana Ford contributed to this report.