A shaky cell phone video appeared online in May 2016, filmed outside a high school in St. Paul, Minn., and showing a white police officer bringing a black student roughly to the ground, pinning him against concrete steps as the student yells that he's being hurt.
The teenager, a former student who officials said was trespassing, was maced and taken away in handcuffs. As the video spread, students and parents were upset that this was the police officer employed by Central High School to keep students safe.
A question arose: What is the proper role for police officers in school?
Police have been in schools at least since the 1950s, but their prevalence is a 21st-century phenomenon. In the late 1990s, fear of predators, a surge in tough-on-crime legislation and several high-profile school shootings led to increased numbers of cops in schools, typically known as school resource officers. From 1997 to 2003, the number of full-time resource officers nearly doubled, from 12,000 to 20,000. Today, about 42 percent of public high schools employ police officers, according to recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.
But a practice initiated in an effort to protect students has come under fire for sometimes causing conflict in schools, for using police as a means of disciplining students and for increasing the number of students referred to the juvenile courts for infractions that once would have been handled within school walls.
School resource officers have certainly made headlines recently. In October, an officer in South Carolina was fired for flipping a black 16-year-old to the ground in her high school classroom. In Baltimore, two school officers were charged with assault after a video appeared of the officers slapping and kicking a teenage boy. In Alabama, a lawsuit was brought in a case involving eight students who had been pepper sprayed in school buildings. In Virginia, a 4-year-old throwing a temper tantrum was taken away in handcuffs.
Even the United Nations has weighed in. In January, a United Nations panel looking into the treatment of people of African descent in the United States recommended removing all police officers from school grounds. "We were informed that across the country there are police in the schools arresting children for minor offences," the panel said. "Zero tolerance policies and heavy-handed efforts to increase security in schools have led to excessive penalization and harassment of African-American children."
Black students are 2.3 times as likely to be arrested in school or referred to criminal justice authorities as white students, according to the Office of Civil Rights. And students with documented disabilities are involved in two-thirds of school restraints or seclusions, despite being only 12 percent of the student population.
The highly publicized incidents of inappropriate police force involve a tiny fraction of school officers. In many schools, the officers are also basketball coaches, drug counselors and mentors. But a 2009 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice found students in buildings with officers have nearly five times the arrest rate for disorderly conduct as do those in buildings without police officers present.
Part of the problem seems to be confusion over what exactly the role of a school resource officer is. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education attempted to define the areas where school officers should be involved — "protecting the physical safety of the school or preventing the criminal conduct of persons other than students" — and areas they should not — "schools should also ensure that school-based law enforcement officers do not become involved in routine school disciplinary matters."
This boundary is not always enforced. A survey of Minnesota school resource officers revealed 21 percent felt they were too often brought in to handle disciplinary issues. One respondent wrote, "The teachers often attempt to use me as their classroom disciplinarian and I hate that .... I also feel like the administration places me in a position where I am asked to enforce school rules too frequently."
Today 1.6 million children attend school with a police officer but without a school counselor. Unlike school counselors and classroom teachers, who complete years of education on child development, there is no uniform training requirement for police in schools. Only 12 states have any additional education requirement for officers who are patrolling public school hallways rather than the streets.
In Denver, a group of parents took action after student referrals to law enforcement increased by 71 percent in four years. Latino parents felt their children were being targeted unfairly. Together with students and school officials, the Latino parent activist group Padres y Jóvenes Unidos drafted a new intergovernmental agreement. The agreement included training requirements for officers, a clear delineation between disciplinary matters and criminal behavior, and a preference for restorative justice techniques. The agreement was signed in 2013 and the next year school arrests fell by 30 percent.
Following Denver's example, the St. Paul school district adopted a new contract for school resource officers in August of 2016. The contract mandates training in diversity and teenage development and annual performance evaluations with input from students and staff. It states clearly that such officers "will NOT be involved in student behavioral matters."