Why Are Police Disciplining Students?

Resource-officer programs that unfairly blur the lines between routine classroom discipline and law enforcement are in need of some essential reforms.

Department of Education / Flickr

After graphic videos of a white police officer arresting a black girl at Spring Valley High School went viral earlier this week, public attention again focused on use of force and the racial dynamics of police encounters. In a matter of days, Richland County, South Carolina, Sheriff Leon Lott fired the officer for violating the agency’s use-of-force policy and training, the FBI agreed to conduct a civil-rights investigation, and the school district promised to improve conflict avoidance and deescalation training for school resource officers. Those actions are appropriate and appreciated, but they leave some fundamental questions unanswered: Why was the officer involved at all? Why was garden-variety adolescent defiance—texting during class and refusing to follow directions—treated as a crime?

These are not dry, academic questions. One of us, Seth, lives a few hundred yards from Spring Valley High School; it is the neighborhood high school in the public school district where his children are enrolled. In all likelihood, it will be the high school that his children attend. The other, Josh, teaches a law-school clinic in which students represent teens in Richland County Family Court, including multiple teens charged with “disturbing schools,” the same offense alleged against the Spring Valley student in Monday’s video.

But these questions are not limited to a single school, school district, or state. With almost 20,000 officers working in schools across the United States, parents, school officials, and officers across the country should be asking what role, if any, officers should play in schools.

The U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education offer a compelling answer in their Guiding Principles for improving school discipline. School resource officers should be “focused on protecting the physical safety of the school [and] preventing the criminal conduct of persons other than students.” Educators, not officers, should handle routine school discipline. When an officer is involved in everyday discipline, from enforcing school rules and teacher directives to responding to adolescent defiance or disobedience, the result is “inappropriate student referrals to law enforcement.”

From the events at Spring Valley High School to the Kentucky officer who handcuffed an 8-year-old to an officer who threw repeated punches at a student, a string of recent incidents have illustrated how such referrals can be badly mishandled. These are extreme examples, perhaps, but they are not isolated events. The Department of Justice’s Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department criticized the tendency of officers interacting with students to “treat routine discipline issues as criminal matters,” and other reports have made similar observations in other jurisdictions. Disciplinary issues should be addressed with positive behavior support, counseling, or formal discipline such as detention. Unfortunately, schools around the country are inappropriately calling upon police to treat behavior problems as crimes.

Such escalation is wrong, and not just as a matter of principle. The criminalization of school discipline has dramatic effects that hurt children, schools, and the country as a whole. Students who are arrested or criminally charged are less likely to graduate high school and more likely to commit future crimes, contributing to the “school-to-prison” pipeline. Research has associated an increased use of strict punishment with more school disciplinary issues and lower academic achievement, even when controlling for demographic factors. Arresting students for disciplinary infractions may solve a problem in the short-term, at least in some cases, but it is likely to cause more problems in the long-term.

Worse, the criminalization of strict school discipline all too often falls along racial lines. Minority students, and especially black students, are far more likely to be “referred” to law enforcement than their white classmates. According to the education law expert Derek Black, author of the forthcoming Ending Zero Tolerance: Students’ Right to Rational Discipline, “African-American students’ risk of being referred to law enforcement is often higher than white students’ risk of being suspended.”

Compounding the problem of over-criminalizing behavioral issues is the fact that school resource officers may not be achieving their primary objectives: improving school safety and decreasing in-school crime. According to a 2013 report by the Congressional Research Service, “The body of research on the effectiveness of [school resource officer] programs is noticeably limited, both in terms of the number of studies published and the methodological rigor of the studies conducted.” The limited studies that exist are often inconsistent with each other. As with other aspects of policing, more and better data is essential to making informed policy decisions. This includes data about police violence in school settings; the fact that no one knows how often police are using force against children should not just be alarming, it should be horrifying.

This is not to suggest that pulling officers out of schools entirely is the only appropriate course of action. There may be compelling advantages to having officers in schools. Properly trained and employed, school resource officers have the opportunity to engage in the positive interactions that are essential to community-policing efforts. Further, they have the opportunity to build key relationships with an incredibly important demographic: young people, especially young people of color.

This is not a new idea. Almost 50 years ago, the Fresno, California, police department put officers in schools to “revitalize its image in the eyes of its youth” and “to promote community relations.” School resource officers can and should be more than a uniformed presence in schools; they should be mentors, counsellors, and role models, especially for disadvantaged youth. They should be guardians, protecting their students from unnecessary indignity and harm. An officer’s interactions with students can shape the way the students perceive and interact with officers for years to come. Officers have the opportunity, even the obligation, to do what they can to improve students’ opinions about their agency and law enforcement generally.

To be effective without blurring the line between school discipline and criminal justice, law-enforcement agencies and school districts should establish clear boundaries for officers working in schools. Those boundaries must be clearly communicated to teachers, school administrators, and to the officers themselves. In the absence of a safety risk or a serious crime, educators should not request law-enforcement intervention, and officers should stay out of the picture, actively declining requests for intervention when necessary.

School officers would also benefit from specialized training in adolescent psychology, including social and cognitive development. Understanding how students think and why students act the way they do would allow officers to better adjust their expectations for each encounter. Cultural competence and implicit-bias training can promote fair and impartial responses to student behavior, enhancing positive interactions between officers and students from diverse backgrounds. Advanced training in interpersonal communication, conflict avoidance, and deescalation can help prevent violent encounters that disrupt not just the classroom, but the entire community.

Make no mistake, such reforms in no way excuse or overlook students’ problematic behavior. Students should obey teachers’ instructions. But as anyone who has kids or has worked around kids knows—as anyone who is being honest about their own childhood knows!—that won’t always happen. For better or for worse, rule-breaking, defiance, and rebelliousness are normal, if difficult, adolescent behaviors. Facing consequences for willful violations of rules or instructions is also a normal, if difficult, aspect of the adolescent experience. But those consequences should be the province of educators and parents, not officers.