Cops in Our Schools: Are They Needed?

SCHOOLS

By Megan Talikoff

Before introducing the final discussion topic at the July 23 Chapel-Hill Carrboro school board meeting, Assistant Superintendent Patrick Abele felt moved to issue a warning.

“I do want to recognize with this topic coming before us this evening, there’s a wide range of comments from individuals who certainly have had positive experiences, but adverse experiences, as well,” he said. “We know this can be difficult and it can be challenging, not only for the school district but for the community.”

Leading up to the meeting, the CHCCS Board of Education had received hundreds of emails from current and former students, staff and community members who felt passionately about the upcoming decision to renew or cancel the contracts of the seven school resource officers — specialized police deployed in schools — employed in the district.

Held in the balance are two potential horror stories: the threat of physical danger to the student body and the threat of criminalization of students, particularly those of color.

At the close of the board’s hour-long discussion, which centered mostly around presentations from the director of safety and the director of equity for the district, Interim Superintendent Jim Causby defined the fundamental sticking point.

“One side holds that school safety is paramount, and we need school resource officers to maintain that,” Causby said. “And the other side has a very, very strong feeling that students of color are suffering from this kind of a program, and I have no doubt that there’s a lot of truth in that.”

He paused for a moment.

“As of now, we have no contract,” Causby clarified. Since the first semester of instruction will be delivered remotely, “we will not have SROs until we’re back in school officially in person, so we have time to think.”

A few minutes later, board member Rani Dasi offered up an official motion: Before making any decisions, the board would create a task force to further explore the effects, positive and negative, of SROs on the CHCCS community.

*

According to longstanding PTA member Al-Nisa Berry, the presence of school resource officers is overwhelmingly negative. Berry, who works as a software quality analyst at RTP, has three sons, all of whom were enrolled since the elementary grades in the CHCCS system.

One of her sons, who has since graduated, was always particularly sensitive to subtle social dynamics, she noted, and the microaggressions he regularly faced. Like many Black people, his mother said he recalls noticing differences in the way he was treated as early as the third grade — but one incident in high school was especially traumatic for him.

Berry recounted the details of the incident at the NAACP’s “Counselors, Not Cops” discussion panel on July 21. It was the first time she said she had shared her son’s narrative with the public, and her anger was palpable.

For her, the experience began when she answered a phone call from her 10th-grade son after school one day.

“Mom, I got in a fistfight,” he said, as soon as she picked up the phone. “And I won.”

At first, Berry recalled, she was worried about his safety. She asked about the condition of the other boy (poor), the location of the fight (the bus lot) and the timing (just after school had ended). Then she said she asked him where the school’s police officer was at the time of the fight, but it had occurred just after hours, and her son told her he was nowhere to be found.

“You’re going to be in a lot of trouble,” Berry remembered telling him. She knew that East Chapel Hill had a zero-tolerance policy for fighting and he would have to face serious consequences.

Later that evening, when things had settled down and her son was doing his homework upstairs, Berry said she heard a banging on the front door of her home. She opened the door to see East’s uniformed school resource officer, whom she described as angry.

“Where is your son?” Berry said he demanded. She quickly called her son downstairs.

“Did you get in a fight today?” the officer asked, according to Berry. Her son answered that he had.

“Were there words between the two of you earlier on, before the fight?”

He confirmed that there had been.

The officer told the family, per Berry’s account, that the father of the other boy, who was white, had decided to press charges. Then he looked at Berry’s son, she said.

“I have half a mind to take you in right now,” Berry recalled him saying.

The mother remembered being terrified. She quickly stepped in front of her son, blocking him from the officer.

“Looks like you have some halfway decent parents,” the officer said, in what Berry called a brusque manner. “You’re getting off lucky. I guess I’ll leave you here for now. I need to talk to your parents outside.”

Berry understood, after a short conversation, that her son would be required to prepare a legal statement, and reimburse the other child’s iPhone, which had been broken in the fight. The process would be handled jointly by East’s SRO and the court system. After the officer left, nobody slept much in the Berry household that night.

The next morning, Berry and her son were called to a disciplinary hearing with the then-principal of the school and the East SRO. Berry said she was shocked by how cold the principal seemed from the get-go.

“Your son will be given 10 days of out-of-school suspension,” the principal told her, according to the account. There was a zero-tolerance policy for fighting, and her son had laid hands on the other boy first.

Barry remembered her son trying to explain what had occurred: the other boy had been cyberbullying him with repeated racist commentary for the past several months, and he’d asked him to stop multiple times. But when the bullying only worsened, he took matters into his own hands. His mother said she had not known about the situation, but felt it explained her son’s unusual behavior.

But Berry said the justification fell on deaf ears. “Cyberbullying,” she recalled the SRO commenting, “is very hard to figure out.” Then the principal, she said, simply stood up and moved to leave the room. “I have other things to be doing,” she said.

Soon after, Berry reached out to her brother, a prominent New Jersey lawyer, for legal recommendations. He quickly found her a nearby lawyer friend who would represent her son at a discounted rate. After a few appointments, they were ready for trial.

The day of her son’s trial is permanently seared in Berry’s mind. She was surprised when the prosecution admitted significant evidence of cyberbullying. At first, her son refused to show her the messages, which included lewd and racially derogatory comments about her. Reading them brought her to tears and turned her stomach. Her son quietly admitted that was the reason he had fought the boy.

“They can say anything about me,” he said. But not about his mother. He had to protect the family’s honor.

In the courtroom, the judge took his time reviewing the evidence. Then, Berry recalled, he gazed down at the 15-year-old, dressed up in a navy suit, his hair cut just days before. Finally, the judge made his decision.

This is what Berry remembered him saying: “If I were your age, and someone had been saying those things to me, I would’ve knocked them out, too.”

He assigned her son community service to make up for the cost of the other boy’s cell phone, but nothing more, adding, Berry said, that he never wanted to see him there again.

Soon afterward, the Berry family learned that the other boy’s parents had dropped the charges, after reading the messages their son had written. While the family expressed their shame, the cyberbully, she said, ended up graduating high school with no additional consequences.

Berry’s son, however, she said was assigned to a service program where he spent hours boxing books for prisoners. Every minute on the job reminded him of where he could have been, instead.

And when he turned 16, the age at which he could be legally prosecuted as an adult, she said she clearly saw him retreat into himself. He was so concerned about doing or saying anything that would get him into trouble that his personality shifted; for the next several years, he stayed meticulously reserved and careful.

And although he is now a happy and successful adult, trauma from the incident stayed with him, landing him in therapy during his college years. At first, Berry was surprised to hear that her son, always so stoic, was seeking counseling. But when he explained to her the mental toll the incident had taken, on top of years of racial microaggressions, she understood.

According to the ACLU, “zero tolerance policies criminalize infractions of school rules, while cops in schools lead to students being criminalized for behavior that should be handled inside the school.” Her son’s experience, Berry pointed out, resulted from a confluence of both negative effects.

*

As those who support the deployment of school resource officers warn, however, even more students could be traumatized and even physically injured in the event of a school shooting without on-site police protection.

School shooting incidents have become painfully prevalent across the United States in recent years. According to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School, there were 20 in 1970; in 2019, there were 112.

Few events in recent history have been as nationally traumatic as the active shooter crises at Columbine and Sandy Hook. And in 2018, the country experienced its most deadly school shooting yet: the attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a 19-year-old former student killed 17 people and injured 17 others.

There is at least one student at East Chapel Hill who attended Stoneman Douglas at the time of the shooting, and many more have friends from the area. When East held an unannounced lockdown drill soon after the Stoneman tragedy, several students said they experienced severe anxiety attacks.

Out of the 16 students I interviewed for this article, seven said they felt notably safer with a police officer on campus, even while acknowledging the potential negative effects of SROs. For many students, parents and community members, safety is always a priority.

One critical assumption made by those who support School Resource Officers as a safety measure is that the presence of an SRO on campus would have an effect on a school shooting event. In fact, the research does not consistently support this conclusion.

Barbara Fedders, an assistant professor and director of the Youth Justice Clinic at UNC Law School, discussed the lack of data about SROs at the NAACP event where Berry spoke. According to Fedders, there is little research about the efficacy of school policing, and what studies do exist are often conflicting.

The data is even less conclusive when the scope is narrowed down to SRO effectiveness in school shooting scenarios, because while these incidents have become much more common in recent decades, it’s hard to make sweeping statements based on just a handful of actual events. The effectiveness of SROs based on the data we do have, Fedders said, is all over the map.

The issue of effectiveness also was addressed at the school board meeting, by CHCCS Director of School Safety and Athletics Scarlett Steinert. Her presentation included SRO response data from 41 active shooter scenarios, as analyzed by the U.S. Secret Service.

About a third of the time, the SRO on campus was able to arrive at the scene within one minute. In scenarios where outside law enforcement was called, about a third of the outside forces were able to arrive within five minutes. Steinert also pointed out that having an officer on campus could improve the response time of outside law enforcement, by virtue of a direct channel of communication.

Why only a third? Could the principal call the police? These questions are for the most part unanswerable without more data. The decision about whether or not to employ officers, then, will have to be made without the assumption that they are an effective mode of protection against the majority of school shooting events.

*

For some, eliminating the issue of school shooting scenarios simplifies the decision. Others point out that SROs have a broad range of responsibilities within the school; crisis management is only a small part of what they train for and practice daily.

Abele laid out the basic job description of a school resource officer within the CHCCS system: educate about topics like drugs and violence, build relationships with students, and work closely with the principal on school safety measures. Steinert simplified it further: to help maintain safe, secure and orderly schools.

A School Resource Officer might help the principal investigate an anonymous tip line complaint, for example, or give a student a place to sit for a minute and have a snack during a free period. At East, they’re a part of traffic management, and work with the principal on some disciplinary cases. Most SROs even attend many after-hours events, particularly sports games and concerts, to help ensure the safety of students and families whenever they’re on campus.

Students, however, tend to have reservations about the value of these other roles. While just under half of the 16 CHCCS high schoolers I interviewed said they felt safer with SROs on campus, only four actually supported their continued employment. The majority felt that there was so little other added value — or, so much detriment — in the presence of SROs that it would be better to sacrifice some feeling of safety than employ them on campus.

It’s also important to note that only three of the students I spoke with were Black and/or Indigenous or People of Color, a group of students who often have very different experiences with SROs than their white and even Latinx and Asian peers do. However, that is about 18 percent of all students interviewed, which is relatively proportional to the number of BIPOC in the district as a whole. I also highlight the race of each student because this is a conversation in which that information may be relevant.

The problem that high school students have with SROs is rarely the officers themselves. Many said they have never interacted with an SRO, even over the course of many years of school. And of those who have established more personal connections, most point to the friendliness and generosity of the officers.

“They’re really likeable, especially Officer [Steve] Sherwin,” says an anonymous white male student, speaking about the main SRO at East Chapel Hill. “He’s great to talk to. I’ve started to view the police with an air of suspicion lately, but he seems like a genuine guy who cares about everyone.”

Matthew Menezes, a rising senior at East who identifies as white, remembers going into the SRO’s office one time for a snack and some water. “I know many students who go in there, often, to de-stress, and it’s nice to know that they’re there if needed,” Menezes said.

A few students have had negative personal experiences, though. Niyah Fearrington, a Black Howard University student and NAACP Youth Council member, said she was blatantly targeted by the SRO at her CHCCS middle school.

The incident began, she said, after something funny happened in class, and everyone began to laugh. Minutes later, the School Resource Officer stepped into the classroom. Fearrington remembers that he read off the names of the five black girls in the class, including herself, and asked them to come to the office with him.

There, she recalled, they were told they were laughing too loudly, which was disruptive to other students — though none of their peers appeared to be facing consequences for the volume of their laughter.

Mia Davis is a white student who graduated, in June, from Chapel Hill High. She remembers feeling relieved when a friend of hers, who was caught doing something “extremely illegal” on campus, was given minimal punishment by the school’s resource officer.

But sometime later that year, Davis said, a few Black students did something illegal off campus during the school day. She recalled that they were followed off campus by the SRO and given days of suspension for their actions. Davis’ relief about her friend quickly turned to guilt, she said. If the Black students were given suspensions, she felt her friend should have been suspended, too.

*

Most students, however, don’t need to have interacted with an SRO to express a definitive opinion on the issue.

“Statistics show that SROs discriminate against BIPOC in school by disproportionate suspension rates” said an anonymous white female student. In fact, a report by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights found that Black students are more than twice as likely to receive discipline through law enforcement, despite composing a significantly smaller proportion of overall students.

“I know that their presence in the school makes some students feel uneasy, so schools should be educating the students on violence prevention rather than always having the threat of an officer on campus,” said the female student.

Leah Coffey, a rising senior at East Chapel Hill who identifies as white, agrees. For her, the issue is that no high schooler should be brought into contact with police on campus.

“There are just better ways of dealing with kids who act out than involving the police,” she said. “And students that act out are absolutely affected by the presence of SROs in their future endeavors. If the police know about you and think of you as a ‘bad kid’ you’re way more likely to get in actual trouble for your actions, even after you’ve graduated.”

Ben, a white East student, was one of several people to point out how SROs “exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline.”

And Katherine Ropp, an East student who is mixed race, said she hasn’t noticed any positive effects of having SROs on campus that would counteract all the negatives. “You don’t really see them doing anything during the school day other than roam the halls, but kids are still doing drugs and getting into fights,” she said.

*

If SROs should leave the schools, though, then how will the district maintain safety and order? Lee Williams, the director of equity and inclusion for the district, has one answer.

His plan involves the restorative justice model, a framework designed to support real accountability while seeking out what happened, what harm resulted and what needs to be done to make things right. The model is centered around three core principles: dignity, respect and mutual concern.

Williams proposed that each school employ a restorative justice coordinator who would take responsibility for implementing practices like community building circles, response to harm circles, peer mentoring and peer mediation. The coordinator also would lead trainings for faculty and school stakeholders on the restorative framework, and how to practice it on a daily basis. 

Williams pointed out that restorative justice is a proactive solution, in contrast to the reactive approach of SROs. The research backs up its effectiveness; a 2011 survey from the Department of Education reported that 97 percent of responding schools believed that restorative practices were effective in reducing bullying. Since then, the same practices have been applied to broader issues with similar success.

Students also have ideas about how to move forward. Dalia Marquez, an African-American student who graduated from East Chapel Hill this June, said that “the district has the funding to put mental health specialists in our school instead of the police.” While “some people are friends with the police officers at East, these relationships could be formed with mental health specialists, going to therapy could be more normalized and it could encourage more people to go, if that’s how we allocated our funding.”

Mary, a white student at East Chapel Hill High School, said she thinks that “a person who specializes in helping teens with drug problems would be very beneficial.” Another anonymous white student, who recently left the CHCCS system, would fund “counseling and mental health personnel, with the addition of significant anti-racism training for these personnel.”

If the school system isn’t ready to go all the way there yet, she has a solution for phasing SROs out gently: “Many school nurses around the country currently operate at multiple schools, alternating between them during the week, and I think that setup might be the way to go for a while.” 

The school board has about five months to decide whether or not school resource officers should remain a part of the city school system.

Perhaps Board Member Rani Dasi put it best:

“What creates long term steady safety,” she said, “is not what we have invested in, as a country,” and the responsibility of the task force will be to figure out what does.

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