Policing the Police

By Jason Langberg

The recent horrific police killings of African-American youth in Ferguson, Cleveland, and many other places across the country are a depressing reminder of the urgent need to rethink the ways in which law enforcement officers have come to be present in the vast majority of public middle and high schools in North Carolina. Of course, not all officers assigned to schools are Darren Wilson, Timothy Loehmann, or threats to students. In fact, some build positive relationships with staff and students, divert youth away from the school-to-prison pipeline, respect students’ rights, and serve as a law-related counselor and educator. However, the fact is that increasingly young people are more likely to encounter law enforcement in schools than any other place, and youthful behaviors that used to be handled by school officials as “teachable moments” are becoming criminalized, particularly for students of color.

On the heels of “tough on crime” policies and high profile school shootings in the late 1980s and early 1990s, law enforcement officers assigned to patrol schools on a full-time basis – called “school resource officers” or “SROs” – quickly became commonplace across the country. North Carolina is no exception. According to a 2006 report by the North Carolina Attorney General’s office, North Carolina was one of the first states to establish an SRO program more than 30 years ago.

The number of SROs in the state steadily skyrocketed from 243 in 1995-96 to an estimated 1,400 in 2012-13 – a 476% increase. Most SROs are employed by sheriff’s departments or police departments; a relatively small number work for school district law enforcement units. The last complete census of SROs in North Carolina, in 2008-09, found that 113 of the 115 school districts had at least one SRO. Nearly all SROs carried pepper spray and/or a TASER. The report did not include an analysis of whether SROs carried firearms. In addition to SROs, many districts employ non-law enforcement security staff and/or contract with private security firms to provide guards.

This hyper-policing of schools has not come without significant and predictable problems.

Unsurprisingly, the growth in SROs has coincided with an increase in the percentage of delinquency complaints emanating from schools. In 2011, the fourth most common offense leading to delinquency complaints was “disorderly conduct at school.” During state fiscal year 2013-14, there were 13,160 school-based delinquency complaints – 45% of all delinquency complaints – 93% of which were for misdemeanors. While the statewide total number of school-based delinquency complaints has decreased, they have not declined nearly as quickly as non-school-based complaints.

Table 1: Counties with at least 100 delinquency complaints and with at least 60% of delinquency complaints arising in schools

County % of Delinquency Complaints School-Based
Lee 80.7
Caldwell 71.8
Pender 68.3
Columbus 66.9
Orange 66.5
Buncombe 65.9
Burke 65.7
Sampson 63.2
Rutherford 62.9
Catawba 61.7
Davidson 61.1
Surry 60.3

Also foreseeable was that African-American students would be disproportionately impacted. During 2013-14, they were 26% of the total student population, but were subjected to 53% of school-based delinquency complaints. By comparison, Caucasian students constituted 51.4% of the total student population, but received only 34.8% of school-based delinquency complaints.

Table 2: Counties in which African-American students received at least 10 school-based delinquency complaints and received more than 75% of the total school-based delinquency complaints

District # of School-Based Delinquency Complaints % of School-Based Delinquency Complaints Against African-American Students
Bladen 12 100.0
Durham 205 93.2
Northampton 43 91.5
Edgecombe 80 87.9
Martin 92 87.6
Pitt 328 85.6
Vance 33 84.6
Bertie 16 84.2
Chowan 37 84.1
Lenoir 56 80.0
Warren 19 79.2
Halifax 91 79.1
Greene 15 79.0
Mecklenburg 802 78.8
Guilford 636 78.5
Pasquotank 75 76.5
Wake 376 75.7

To make matters worse, North Carolina is the only state that automatically treats all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults when they are charged with criminal offenses and then denies them the ability to appeal for return to the juvenile system. Consequently, most high school students who are subject to arrests and complaints by SROs go straight into the adult criminal system. Unconscionably, no data are maintained – not by school systems, law enforcement, or the Department of Public Safety – about school-based criminal complaints. Thus it is impossible to determine how many students are being pushed directly into the criminal system from schools. More importantly, the lack of data makes it impossible to determine which districts and schools are most in need of reform and which are doing well and should be replicated, as well as where discrimination may be taking place.

Students who are funneled into the juvenile and criminal systems often face devastating collateral consequences, including stigmatization, missed class time, denial of enrollment in school, eviction from public housing, decreased employment prospects, deportation, and ineligibility for participation in high school athletics, financial aid for college, public benefits, and professional licensure. Those who are detained or incarcerated are subject to a risk of sexual assault and other forms of violence.

Additionally, SROs are costly. Most are funded through state and local taxpayer money; a small percentage of the costs of SROs is covered by federal funding. A study of SROs in Wake County revealed that the average SRO annual salary was over $50,000, on top of benefits, equipment, training, and other related expenses. All the while, public schools struggle for adequate staff, instructional resources, facilities, and other necessities for providing a sound basic education. It would take a decade for a Wake County teacher with a master’s degree to be paid at least $50,000 a year.

Anecdotal evidence shows that students are also subject to profiling, harassment, illegal searches, illegal interrogations, and excessive force by SROs.

Finally, over-policing of schools can damage the educational environment and cause psychological harm to children. Imagine seeing or hearing about a police officer killing an unarmed teen and leaving his body in the street for hours; an officer previously found unfit for duty killing a 12-year-old on a playground; or officers pepper spraying a foster youth in his own home – and then the first thing you see when you arrive at school the next morning is a police car and an armed officer. Now imagine how that must feel when the children you saw in the news or heard about look like you.

Fortunately, in response to grassroots advocacy and statewide policy reform efforts, a handful of school districts, law enforcement agencies, and judges have made positive changes. The Wake County Public School System adopted a new memorandum of understanding (MOU) that improves training and data reporting requirements, and a group of stakeholders in the county is meeting to develop additional reforms. Judges J.H. Corpening, II and Elizabeth Trosch are leading efforts in Wilmington and Charlotte, respectively, to reduce school-based court referrals. According to a 2014 report by the North Carolina Department of Public Safety’s Center for Safer Schools, the North Carolina Justice Academy has prioritized and expanded training for SROs and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has developed an online module for teachers and other school support staff to assist them in more effectively utilizing SROs within their schools.

However, efforts to ensure that all SROs are well-trained, that their roles are clear, and that they are held accountable must accelerate. District-by-district, piecemeal improvements are good; statewide, comprehensive reform is better.

Currently, the North Carolina General Assembly provides funding for SROs free of any conditions or requirements. During the 2015 legislative session, the legislature should pass a statute requiring law enforcement agencies and school districts to, at a minimum:

  • train SROs in students’ rights, adolescent development, working with students with mental health issues and disabilities, cultural competency, implicit bias, and safe restraint techniques;
  • prohibit SROs from filing complaints for minor misbehavior (e.g., disorderly conduct);
  • prohibit SROs from carrying guns on campuses;
  • prohibit the use of force unless there is a clear and immediate threat to physical safety;
  • establish clear, well-publicized, unbiased complaint processes for students, parents, staff, and others to use to report and seek remedies for SRO misconduct; and
  • collect and report annual data, including disaggregated data about searches, interrogations, uses of force, arrests, and court referrals.

It would be naive to think that even all of these reforms would completely eliminate the harms associated with school policing. Eliminating SROs altogether is the commonsense solution. Given the fact that they police nearly most middle and high schools in the state, it can be easy to forget that schools are among the safest places for children and, for decades, no one thought schools needed full-time police officers. However, assuming abolition is not happening any time soon, a new statute would be a good starting place.

Jason Langberg is a member of the Youth Justice North Carolina Board of Directors.

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