Spotlight Exclusives

The Softer Side of Patrolling Schools

Ed Finkel Ed Finkel, posted on

Many of their days are mostly uneventful. When school resource officers make the news, it tends to be for one of two headline-grabbing reasons: either there’s been a dangerous person such as an active shooter in their midst, or they have been involved in an incident with a student in which disproportionate discipline has been alleged.

To guard against the latter without taking away their tools to respond to the former, at least 19 states have either proposed or passed legislation to ensure training of school resource officers in what one might call the softer side of their roles. This typically encompasses areas like youth development, positive behavioral interventions, de-escalation techniques, mental and behavioral health, and trauma-informed care.

Training in these areas could be particularly helpful in ensuring that officers appropriately handle youth in poverty, who face greater stresses in their lives overall and thus might be more likely to act out in ways that could lead to harsh physical discipline, repeated suspensions and eventually expulsion—if their stresses are not well understood and taken into account.

School resources officers have been part of the educational landscape for 65 years and by 1997, nearly 9,500 of them had been assigned to schools throughout the country, according to the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, a Chicago-based nonprofit. The center was closely involved in state legislation signed on August 19 by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner that will require school resource officer training in a variety of areas.

“Research shows that the mere presence of police officers in school increases the likelihood that a student will be referred to law enforcement for adolescent behavior,” wrote the Shriver Center in its report on the subject, titled “Handcuffs in Hallways.” The report continues, in making the organization’s case for greater training, “School-based arrests, which fall more harshly on students of color, put students in direct contact with the justice system. Poor policing within schools therefore puts students on the fast track to the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The Illinois legislation amends the Illinois Police Training Act to require at least 40 hours of training for school resource officers in subjects including child and adolescent development and psychology, positive behavioral interventions and support, and mental, behavioral and physical needs of all youth, including those with disabilities or special needs.

Some of the same provisions passed in Massachusetts this year as part of a larger criminal justice reform package, with training for all local law enforcement officers, including school resource officers, now required in areas like bias-free policing, de-escalation and disengagement, and handling mental health emergencies and complaints. States like Ohio, Mississippi, Texas and Rhode Island are at least considering bills that would take similar steps, according to an analysis from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That’s all well and good for those states, says Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, but his organization would prefer to see national standards put in place regarding such training. Canady acknowledges that certain issues like specific state laws regarding special education would need to be handled individually.

“It’s probably providing some value in whatever particular states it is” that have passed training laws, he says, and there are some aspects of what the laws cover that don’t change from state to state. “When you look at, for instance, one of the things that can be very helpful to SROs in how to better serve youth is understanding adolescent brain development. … Their brain development is certainly going to be similar. Issues around implicit bias, use of social media—there’s a lot of similarities across the nation, certainly with nuances in specific areas.”

But overall NASRO is supportive of the state laws, Canady says. “I haven’t seen anything that I would refer to as unnecessary or not helpful in any of this legislation,” he says.

Michelle Mbekeani-Wiley, staff attorney in community justice at the Shriver Center and author of the initial draft of the Illinois bill, says the legislation requires the state’s law enforcement standards training board to collaborate with organizations that have expertise in subjects like youth mental health, juvenile advocacy and child abuse prevention.

“They have to work alongside organizations who are stakeholders in ensuring the holistic well-being of the child, to ensure that law enforcement is undertaking best practices,” she says. “The heavy lifting will be identifying who we should be reaching out to, in developing a curriculum. Creating the curriculum is one next-step, and also getting officer buy-in.”

Once officers have taken the training, which they will have a year to complete, Mbekeani-Wiley predicts numerous benefits for them, students and school districts. “Officers will be more well-equipped to deal with students with disabilities and not criminalize them,” she says. “They will be informed about the alternatives to arrest. Officers will have a better relationship with the school district. We’re here to keep kids safe—not to perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline—and develop a positive relationship with young people.”

The original draft of the legislation was widely opposed by police and also raised concerns among school districts about unfunded mandates, Mbekeani-Wiley says. Among the compromises were that the initial draft more closely proscribed the curriculum, rather than setting parameters and creating the coalition to fill in the details later; and that in the final bill, officers only need to take the curriculum once—rather than every year, which she says “would be ideal.” In the end, she says, “It took bringing people to the table, listening to their concerns—and they had to make some compromises, too.”

Canady of NASRO agrees that such training should be ongoing rather than just a one-time thing. “None of this should be something you hear about one time in your career, and you’re done,” he says. “Something like social media, that’s ever-changing. There are certain things that are ever-changing that we need regular updates on.”

In Massachusetts, advocates for youth wanted to make sure that school resource officers were selected, trained and evaluated in completely different ways, says Lisa Thurau, executive director of Boston-based Strategies for Youth, Inc., who wrote a version of her state’s legislation.

That law also more clearly delineates what constitutes a simple school disciplinary matter vis-à-vis a criminal offense, and more clearly defines the offense of “disturbing a lawful assembly,” which was being used to arrest “high rates of kids,” she says. “That was a vague and broad thing. Kids were being arrested for refusing to remove a hat, or talking back to a teacher, or running down a hallway.”

The training piece of the legislation, signed by Governor Charlie Baker on April 13, was aimed at “developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed, racially equitable approaches,” Thurau says. “We wanted to see in the training the understanding of the developmental differences of youth, and a recognition that you have to use different approaches with youth than you would with adults. And the understanding of what is your purpose—to punish, or to correct behavior?”

Unless they’re trained, school resource officers often do not understand special needs youth in particular, which leads them to escalate rather than deescalate, Thurau says, not to mention youth in poverty and what they experience in their daily lives. “If you don’t understand the demographics of kids, and how factors in their lives lead to traumatized responses, you’re just going to think that kids are badly behaved. Then, arrests become a logical response. When they look at the disturbing circumstances some children are living in, you get a very different response from officers—and a much better response from kids.”

The details of the training plan are yet to be hashed out. Thurau says the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association supported the legislation because “they really did not want to see officers being featured on the front page of newspapers for arresting kids who were in need—it doesn’t look good and shouldn’t be happening in 2018. They got it.”

But some district attorneys and police groups have been less enthusiastic. “It’s a mix. This is a complicated state,” she says. “The more you find that officers view kids as worthy of their investment and time, the less you’re going to see resistance to these proposals. When officers are not interested in a transformational approach, when they’re more committed to a transactional approach, you’re going to see resistance.”

Phil Kassel, executive director of the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, another group that advocated for the legislation, hopes it sends a message to school districts “that the legislature doesn’t want these kids arrested—arrest is a last resort, only where there’s some genuine concern about school safety that’s generated by a kid’s conduct, and it’s serious.” Aside from that, he says, “School discipline should say in the realm of school administrators.”

Brian Kyes, president of the Massachusetts Major City Chiefs of Police Association and chief of police in Chelsea, does not see anything problematic about the statute for either his officers or his association’s members. “The hope is that across the state, more and more municipalities have SROs in school, and No. 2, everyone is on the same page in terms of job responsibilities,” he says. “Of the language outlined—you shall do a, b and c—you might say it’s redundant, we do it already, but in order for it to be uniform across the state, for everyone to be on the same page, it was necessary.”

Kyes says training always has been offered in areas like implicit bias, de-escalation and procedural justice, but the new legislation will ensure that it’s broader, more regular and more dependably carried out. “The things that are outlined in the statute, some departments were doing some of that, but not all of it,” he says.

Strategies for Youth has offered a model training agenda called “Policing the Teen Brain in Schools” that covers topics like the role of a school resource officer, understanding the teen brain, issues around mental health disorders and the implications of community demographics, and cultural factors affecting teen behavior. The suggested training ends with a session called “Trying it On for Size,” in which local youth participate in skits enacting typical school-based scenarios … which are interrupted so students can be asked why they respond to authority the way they do.

Thurau expects the training to come into focus slowly. “I assume it won’t be easy,” she says. “Those departments that can afford to do training will do more training. Some departments are going to view this as a heavy burden and imposition on them. … Most police departments have no policies to explain to officers how to behave when they walk into a school.”

In Mississippi, a bill died in committee that would have required at least 40 hours of specialized law enforcement training for newly sworn officers in areas like child adolescent development, cultural competence, building relationships, de-escalating violent situations, directing youth to appropriate services rather than using force, and identifying social, emotional and mental health needs.

Jeremy Eisler, education opportunities campaign director at the Mississippi Center for Justice in Biloxi, says his organization did not follow the bill closely but figures it simply fell victim to “the usual first-year failure-to-thrive syndrome,” given that the state legislature considers thousands of bills in a given year and very few end up getting signed.

Eisler sees the need for the legislation, though, given that he says the current statute is extremely vague about what’s required and gives a new officer two years to complete training. “That’s absurd on its face,” he says. “It’s an incredibly important position. It presents unique challenges. By definition, it involves an extremely vulnerable population. … Giving someone two years to obtain the training, you might as well not have any requirement at all.”

No legislation or training will completely end internal debates around tactics and procedures, Canady says. “But at the end of the day, it’s all about, ‘What’s the best way to keep students safe at school?’ ” he says. “That’s our bottom line.”


Ed Finkel is a freelance journalist based in Evanston, Illinois. 

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