A high-school girl who refuses to follow school rules is body-slammed to the ground, ripped from her chair, and thrown past rows of desks. The school resource officer’s use of force, caught on video, unleashes national outrage and costs him his job.
An 8-year-old boy is cuffed above the elbows as a cell phone captures the scuffle. “You can do what we ask you to or you can suffer the consequences,” the school resource officer says to the boy in a video that prompted a lawsuit over his use of restraint.
In Irving, Texas, a boy who shows a clock to his science teacher, proud of his ingenuity, finds himself in handcuffs—accused of building a “hoax bomb.” 180 miles south in Round Rock, an SRO called to stop a gym fight chokes a 14-year-old boy to the floor.
The police officer “should have been trained well enough to know that this is a 130-pound child,” the boy’s father tells a local TV station. “The action that was taken was totally unnecessary.”
There are about 19,000 sworn police officers stationed in schools nationwide, according to U.S. Department of Justice estimates, and stories about their school-discipline disasters cross Mo Canady’s desk all the time.
“The first thing I do is search our database to see ‘Did this person come through our training?’” said Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which offers specialized training to SROs—primarily on a voluntary basis. “And the answer is consistently ‘no.’”
Confrontations between armed police officers and students in schools are becoming more frequent—arrests are up according to an August report for the National Association of State Boards of Education—and more high-profile because of both cell phones and social media. They are also being increasingly scrutinized for bias and alleged brutality in the same way as encounters on the street have become between cops and adult civilians.
These incidents, youth-rights activists and federal officials argue, show that the school resource officers lack the proper training needed to interact effectively with children, especially when they are black, Hispanic, or disabled. The very students, advocates say, are being funneled from the classroom to the courtroom.
“In terms of dealing with students of color, one thing that is super important and one thing we asked (officials) to do is to have training that allows people to understand the unconscious biases for their behavior,” said Morgan Craven, the director of the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project at Texas Appleseed. “It can be uncomfortable for people to say ‘I am biased against people with color,’ but a majority of people in this country, and a majority of teachers, have those biases.”
Attempts to crack down on school violence have come at the expense of students of color and those with disabilities, who are disproportionately punished—including through restraint and arrest, U.S. Department of Education data show.
Black students were 16 percent of the total student enrollment in the 2011-12 school year but 27 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of students involved in a school-related arrest, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights data.
Students with disabilities represented about 12 percent of the total student population but accounted for a quarter of those arrested and referred to law enforcement, 75 percent of those who were physically restrained at school and 58 percent of those placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement.
A range of factors may cause variations in student discipline rates, but research suggests racial disparities are not caused by more misbehavior, but because “racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”
Little data has been collected on the level of training officers receive. Only 12 states have laws that specify training requirements for officers deployed to classrooms, and those laws are inconsistent: Some states mandate training on how to respond to an active shooter.* Fewer focus on dealing with children differently than adults.
“All officers are getting a certain level of training that they’re required to get as police officers,” said Nina Salomon, a senior policy analyst at the Council of State Governments Justice Center. “The additional training that we’re talking about—on youth development, on working with youth, on prevention and de-escalation—hasn’t typically been received by the majority of law enforcement that work with youth inside a school building, or that are called to campus.”
Susan Mizner, the disability counsel for the ACLU, said three levels of training could have helped prevent situations like the one in Kentucky where an 8-year-old boy ended up crying and squirming in a chair as the school resource officer demands obedience—handcuffing him above the elbows because the cuffs were too large for his wrists.
“It’s your decision to behave this way,” the officer is heard saying on the video as the boy complains of pain. “If you want the handcuffs off, you’re going to have to behave and ask me nicely.”
First, Mizner said, school staff and officers should know the SRO’s job is to keep schools safe from a threat, not to engage in routine discipline.
“We can’t have that line blurred,” she said. “Just because they’re there doesn’t mean we use them. That’s the first level of training, and that’s probably the hardest piece of training for both school staff and school resource officers.”
But when an officer does become involved, Mizner said, training in de-escalation techniques is the second step. That includes diversion, not direct commands for compliance. And third: training to help recognize students with disabilities.
“School resource officers should understand and expect that they will be called in, primarily, to interact with kids with disabilities because our school systems really haven’t learned how to accommodate those disabilities and to work productively with most of these kids,” she said, adding that in order to hold authorities accountable for this level of training, it should be required.
“There should be laws that they have, at a minimum, those three types of trainings and policies that go with them,” she said. “Many more kids are hurt and traumatized by this than caught in fires in schools each year, so I see it as essential.”
On October 9, the U.S. Justice Department issued a Statement of Interest in the Kentucky case, highlighting the need for SROs to be properly trained “to recognize and respond appropriately to youth behavior that may be a manifestation of disability.”
“Appropriate training can help law-enforcement agencies avoid interactions that violate children’s rights under federal civil-rights laws, including the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act),” according to the statement.
Andre Hill, a police lieutenant in Richmond, California, offers school-specific SRO training through Strategies for Youth, a national organization devoted to improving interactions between police and young people.
Officers are taught about the brain structure and capacity of youth during their adolescence and young adulthood—information that promotes positive interactions and lessens conflict.
“That cuffing technique alone, we would never teach that,” Hill said, referring to the Kentucky incident.
Before he was asked to lead the department’s youth-services division, Hill said he didn’t realize the effect officers can have on kids’ lives. He does now.
“Especially in urban schools, kids are hard to reach,” he said. “If they’re not getting structure at home, they are going to continue to act out, even when confronted by an authority figure.”
New policies in Colorado are often touted as a progressive approach. A 2012 revision in the state’s education statute set minimum requirements for SROs, so the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training Board developed an SRO curriculum. Before then, some departments offered extensive specialized training, others relied on a 90-minute video describing some of the problems they could encounter on the job. Some departments didn’t even do that.
Survey results from a 2012 study show most police academies do not teach recruits about research on adolescent psychology and behavior.
In 37 states, police academies spent 1 percent or less of total training hours on juvenile justice issues, according to the study by Strategies for Youth. And while most academies do not teach recruits how to respond to children with mental health, trauma-related and special education-related disorders, only one state—Tennessee—provides specific training for officers deployed to schools. In five states, police academies do not require any training focused specifically on juvenile-justice issues.
Once on the job, about 80 percent of police officers said they receive department-level training in juvenile-justice issues, according to an International Association of Chiefs of
Police survey, and almost 75 percent said they receive training through state-level agencies. However, most officers said they receive fewer than 10 hours of juvenile-justice interview and interrogation training over their entire careers.
Hill is in the process of developing a training model to present to other officers in his California department. For him, training is important, he said, because “we don’t want to find ourselves in front of a judge being asked what kind of training is necessary.”
Last year, residents in Columbia, South Carolina approached Strategies for Youth’s founder and executive director, Lisa Thurau, with their concerns about the Richland County Sheriff’s Department—the same department whose deputy, Ben Fields, was caught on video violently handling the teenage girl who refused to leave her classroom or put away her cell phone.
Community members had heard horror stories about officers’ use of force, arrests, and suspensions in their schools, Thurau said. They asked for her help.
Strategies for Youth gave the residents a set of training recommendations, which they delivered to the sheriff’s department. Recommendations included the nonprofit organization’s five-day train-the-trainer program, which uses a police-training coach and a psychologist to teach officers how to train their co-workers. They also recommended a second, three-day session.
The training would have cost the department $75,000, according to the proposal. Thurau said she provided a list of organizations that could help pay for the program but communication between the community members and the sheriff’s department fell flat.
“We encounter this in a lot of places. There is no money,” she said. “We’re increasing the demands on police and doing nothing to support or equip them to be first responders to youth and families’ needs.”
The conduct of Fields, the Spring Valley High School SRO, horrified many and prompted a criminal civil-rights probe by the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the Justice Department.
Fields “did not follow proper training, did not follow proper procedure when he threw the student across the room,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said at a news conference announcing Fields had been fired.
In this case, school officials made the first mistake when they called on a police officer to address a school-discipline incident, said Dennis Parker, the director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program. But once the officer was there, he should have known how to de-escalate the situation without the use of force.
“It would be good to have clear training requirements for all schools and a clear understanding of what the role of school resource officers in schools should be,” Parker said. “I think that should be part of an agreement that is entered into between the school resource officers and the school district.”
Under South Carolina law, police officers must complete basic training as provided or recognized by the National Association of School Resource Officers or the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy before they’re placed in schools.
But Canady, the NASRO executive director, said SROs in South Carolina, including Fields, don’t take his training because his program wasn’t approved by a state regulatory commission that certifies SRO training programs in the state.
According to the Strategies for Youth survey, state police academy recruits receive 3.5 hours of training on juvenile-justice issues. This does not include training on youth development and psychology, demographic issues, or cultural influences.
The Justice Center doesn’t see police stepping away from schools any time soon, Salomon, the senior policy analyst, said. So in 2014, the center released more than 60 policy recommendations to help ensure students are in productive classrooms, not courtrooms.
Several training requirements were recommended, starting with knowledge of the school’s code of conduct so school officials and police are on the same page. The Justice Center administered the report in coordination with the Supportive School Discipline Initiative launched in 2011 by the U.S. Attorney General and the U.S. Secretary of Education. More than 100 advisers including policymakers, school administrators, teachers, behavioral-health experts, and police collaborated on the recommendations.
“We don’t take a position on whether law enforcement should be in school or not,” Salomon said. “But if they are going to be in school, as is the case in a lot of jurisdictions around the country, then they need to have the right training, resources, and support to be able to do their job well.”
Most members of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which does not cover every cop who works in a school, receive at least some training beyond what is required by police academies or school orientation, according to a Justice Center survey.
Training covers a variety of scenarios, including investigation protocols, active shooters, conflict resolution, addressing trauma, and working with school administrators. Some said they were trained on bullying and suicide prevention.
Canady, the NASRO executive director, gets frustrated when people say there isn’t any training available for school-based police officers. His organization has trained school resource officers for more than two decades—but “we only train the ones that come to us.”
NASRO, the largest provider of school-based training, instructs about 1,500 officers each year, Canady said. His program teaches officers concepts in law enforcement, and in teaching and informal counseling.
“The SROs should become as if they’re a member of the school team, and certainly another trusted adult in the building that certainly is there to protect students, but certainly also to be aware of any criminal issues going on in the schools,” Canady said. “They serve a lot of different roles, especially if they’re doing the job the proper way.”
In the 1990s, Kristen Amundson served as chairwoman of the Fairfax County, Virginia, school board, where she supported the growth of resource officers in her schools. Now as the executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education, she still does.
If school police are properly trained and employ community-based policing techniques, Amundson said, their presence can be a “gamechanger” in maintaining a positive school culture. The officers’ presence helped steer her schools away from criminal activity.
“We never had metal detectors at the doors, we never had to move football games from night to afternoon because it was just a culture of safety, and the SRO was there to be part of it,” she said.
However, since school-based police are usually recruited from law enforcement, according to a Justice Policy Institute report, even officers trained by NASRO typically have years of law-enforcement training and only three days of training in counseling and education.
A Los Angeles Police Department detective, Richard Askew, said his time as an educator and as an SRO influenced his understanding of the way children behave and interact with authority.
Before joining the LAPD, Askew worked for two years at a charter school serving at-risk students aged 16-24 who were unable to stay engaged with traditional or alternative methods. Joining LAPD’s juvenile narcotics division, Askew was planted in L.A. schools as an undercover investigator.
In 2009, he joined LAPD’s mental-evaluation unit, a partnership with the department of mental health to interact with people who struggle from mental-health issues. He also became a Strategies for Youth trainer.
“SROs generally have a pretty big impact on campuses for students because of their authority positions and how they’re perceived,” Askew said.
Once an officer is selected as an SRO, they receive in-house training on school-district policies and procedures and 40 hours of SRO training from the state police academy, he said. Just a few months ago, all of the department’s officers were taught how to avoid implicit bias.
California does have a law setting training requirements for SROs. But until standardized training is required, most of the officers who do seek additional coursework are acting out of common sense, Canady said. Police departments would ensure officers in investigations units are properly trained.
So why not those who work in schools?
“Officers working in schools, just out of the nature of the assignment, are going to become the most well-known police officers or sheriff’s deputies in your community, and you’d better have some additional training for them, and you’d better make sure it’s the right person,” Canady said, “or you’re going to wind up potentially giving your department a black eye.”
* This article originally stated that Virginia is among the states with laws requiring special training for officers deployed to classrooms. However, while district-hired school security officers in Virginia are required to receive student-specific training, the state does not require any such training for school resource officers. We regret the error.
This story was produced in collaboration with The74Million.org.