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Does America Really Need More Cops in Schools?

Even before Newtown, more cops were patrolling our schools. Parents, judges, and civil libertarians give them failing grades for treating routine discipline like a crime.

| Tue Mar. 5, 2013 6:00 AM EST

The ACLU suit says that plaintiff Kevin Winston's son, Kaleb, was 14 when two plainclothes officers ushered the student, who is half-black, into a room and falsely accused him of gang membership and graffiti, or "tagging." An officer allegedly grabbed Kaleb's arm, told him, "Quit acting tough," and searched his backpack. The suit says that officers forced Kaleb, who has no juvenile record, to pose for a photo—to put in a gang database—holding a sign with his name and the word "tagger" on it.

After he was released, the suit says, Kaleb was shaken, called his parents and asked to go home. The suit says that when Lisa Winston, his mother, protested what had happened officers told her the sweep was done because of "a problem with the Mexicans."

On March 1, the Salt Lake defendants filed a court document admitting that police had entered the school and questioned students. But in the documents, they deny that they "acted unconstitutionally" and deny that they referred to a problem with Mexicans.

In February, a similar suit filed by the ACLU of Southern California in 2011 was partially settled on behalf of 56 students at Hoover High School in Glendale, California, near Los Angeles. The suit says that school administrators and Glendale police interrogated Latino and other minority students, and made them pose for mock mug shots.

Glendale police Sgt. Thomas Lorenz told the Associated Press that the actions were an attempt to educate students on the peril of gangs. He denied that officers' methods amounted to racial profiling. "I've never been in trouble, and it was confusing, terrifying and humiliating," said Ashley Flores, who was 16 when the incident happened. The settlement requires Glendale police and school officials to notify parents if students are to be questioned on campus. To ensure that officers uphold students' rights, they will be trained to avoid racial profiling.

Walking the Line

Michael Nash, presiding juvenile court judge in Los Angeles County, said in an interview that it's hard to argue against placing police in schools—if they stay out of discipline matters.

Aggressive police in schools "may actually lead to violence, thus jeopardizing, instead of promoting, school safety," Judge Nash told the Obama administration.

As president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, Nash sent a strongly worded letter to the Obama administration on January 14, responding to the administration's call for ideas on school safety. "Research shows that aggressive security measures produce alienation and mistrust among students, which, in turn, can disrupt the learning environment," the letter said. "Such restrictive environments may actually lead to violence, thus jeopardizing, instead of promoting, school safety."

A student's odds of dropping out of high school quadruple with a first-time court appearance, Nash wrote. Last summer, the judges' council began a national campaign "to support school engagement and reduce school expulsion." Putting more armed personnel into schools, Nash said, could prove "counterproductive" to this effort.

On January 16, the White House announced it would seek congressional authorization for a $385 million school violence prevention package for fiscal year 2014. A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, (R-Ohio) said the president's proposals would go to appropriate committees. A Washington Post poll in January suggested that the recommendation for hiring more school police would face little opposition. The poll found that 55 percent of the public would even support a law to put an armed guard in every school.

A centerpiece of the White House proposal is the request for $150 million to help schools hire up to 1,000 new police. But in nod to concerns like Nash's, schools could also use grants to hire counselors and school psychologists.

The administration also proposes $50 million to help 8,000 schools create safer and more "nurturing" atmospheres at schools. Another $25 million would be used to help schools struggling with "pervasive violence," and $30 million would be for one-time grants for states to help schools develop emergency plans.

A total of $130 million would be for helping schools adopt conflict-resolution programs and improving early detection of student mental health problems.

In a January media call, Education secretary Duncan was asked to respond to concerns that more police would lead to misguided crackdowns on students. "There's no reason why additional school resources have to drive up the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse pipeline," Duncan said. "Execution is really important—taking time train people in a really thoughtful way." The Department of Justice, he said, will be in on that training.

Duncan is no stranger to controversy over school discipline. Between 2009 and 2012, the Department of Education launched more than 20 investigations into allegations in school districts that minority students were punished more harshly than white pupils for the same violations of school rules. Duncan's department aims to amicably reach agreements with districts to change discipline practices. Last year, the department also released an unprecedented analysisof national school data showing that black students, 18 percent of the sample, represented 42 percent of students referred to law enforcement.

These issues have been aired in two Congressional hearings since December. In a February appearance before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, NASRO's executive director Mo Canady said the role of school resource officers is as "a trusted adult that a student can come to for information, for guidance." He also said officers should leave "formal discipline" to educators.

Searching for Balance

In Texas, police involvement in routine school discipline is a hot topic. On February 20, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the National Youth Law Center filed a complaint with the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The complaint is based on citation records showing that black students in the Bryan Independent School District, 100 miles north of Houston, are given municipal court summonses in numbers far greater than the proportion of school enrollment they represent.

A review of Jackson, Mississippi, police records found that 96 percent of student arrests at schools were for misdemeanors, mostly disorderly conduct.

Black students represent almost 22 percent of the 15,500-pupil Bryan district but were given more than half of all Class C misdemeanor tickets issued to students for "disruption of class" and "disorderly conduct," according to the complaint. The complaint also says that staff of Texas Appleseed, a public-interest law group, observed Bryan students in court, including a 13-year-old whose teacher overheard him use profanity before class started and sent him to the principal, who, in turn, asked an officer to issue a ticket.

In a statement, the Bryan district said it would welcome "a dialogue" with federal education investigators. The citation numbers alleged in the complaint "were certainly no surprise to us, and we have been proactive in taking measures to address the issue," the district said. "We hope the measures we are taking to support our minority students will result in a more positive outcome."

Texas state Democratic Sen. John Whitmire, chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, says it's time to stop these tickets, which can cost families hundreds of dollars and end up creating a criminal record for the student. He said legislators will have to search for a balance between security and smart use of school police. The Houston Democrat hopes to pass a bill this year to stop ticketing for basic misbehavior, and require alternatives for students before schools send them to court.

It used to be a "comforting" to see a police officer at school, Whitmire said. Then cash-strapped schools shed counselors, police stepped in as enforcers, and Texas courts, he said, began to expect revenue from student tickets. "These police departments have grown and grown, and they have to justify their budgets," Whitmire added. "They've even asked for legislation to be able to go [do enforcement] outside schools."

But in response to Newtown, Whitmire is cosponsoring another proposal with state Sen. Tommy Williams, a Republican from The Woodlands, to allow districts to try to raise taxes or other revenue to hire more school police or buy security technology. He'd prefer adding police to arming teachers, Whitmire said, but he'll "make damn sure," he said, that more police doesn't lead to more tickets.

Mississippi state Democratic Rep. John Hines Sr. is concerned about safety, too. But he's also trying to get fellow legislators more interested in allegations of a school-to-prison pipeline in his state. In January, Hines, who chairs the House Youth and Family Affairs Committee, held a state public hearing to discuss the "Handcuffs on Success" report issued that month by the Advancement Project, the ACLU of Mississippi, the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, and the Mississippi Coalition for the Prevention of Schoolhouse to Jailhouse.

The report notes that the Jackson Public Schools District was sued in 2011 in connection to allegations that its students were handcuffed to railings for dress-code violations or refusing to do their schoolwork. The district settled the suit last May with an agreement to stop handcuffing children younger than 13, and to only handcuff older students when they are accused of a crime. A review of Jackson police records shows, according to "Handcuffs on Success," that 96 percent of student arrests at schools in 2010-11 were for misdemeanors, most for disorderly conduct. Only 4 percent were for suspected felonies.

Hines said he's also troubled by a lawsuit the Department of Justice filed last October against Meridian, Mississippi (PDF), alleging that students there "are regularly and repeatedly handcuffed and arrested in school and incarcerated for days at a time without a probable cause hearing."

"I want kids safe," Hines said. "I don't want people coming off the street or an enraged child shooting people. But I don't want lots of people all strapped up with guns at our schools either."

Republican Lester "Bubba" Carpenter, who also serves in Mississippi's House, is sponsoring the proposal to allow districts to designate teachers or employees as a secret "marshals" with permission to bring their own licensed, concealed weapons to school. Mississippi is a "pretty poor state," Carpenter said, so the idea is cost-effective. He's not worried that teachers will panic and shoot in haste. "I think they're smart enough individuals," Carpenter said. "We trust them with our children every day."

But Carpenter also supports the proposal to set aside $7.5 million so that schools can apply for $10,000 matching grants to hire police officers. "I'll vote for both of them," Carpenter said of the proposals. "You can't get enough security at schools."

Carpenter said he wasn't that familiar with the allegations of police excesses alleged in the ACLU and Justice Department lawsuits, or the "Handcuffs on Success" report. "You're always going to have a bad apple," he said.

The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit, independent investigative news outlet. For more of its stories on this topic go to

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