ANAHEIM, Calif. – In the sweltering days of July, tensions between police and civilians were running high. A cop fatally shot Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, setting off a week of protests. Another police officer fatally shot Philando Castile in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, while his fiance and her 4-year-old daughter watched. A sniper shot and killed five police officers in Dallas.
But inside a Disneyland convention center in Anaheim, California, almost 700 law enforcement officers and security personnel were learning how to be role models in schools across the country. While families rode rollercoasters and met characters outside, school cops at the National Association of School Resource Officers’ annual conference spent a week attending panels about topics like active-shooter situations and potential terrorist threats. At night they sang karaoke, explored the amusement park and bonded over keeping our nation’s children safe.
These law enforcement agents, most commonly known as school resource officers, belong to a sector of law enforcement that has grown considerably since the 1990s. They often take on the role of mentoring and counseling — not just protecting — students, many told The Huffington Post during the conference.
Mo Canady, the executive director of NASRO, said this is important because kids who grow up having positive experiences with cops will hopefully maintain these impressions as adults.
Any school that doesn’t have a police officer trained by NASRO, “doesn’t yet know what they’re missing,” he said, while sitting in a Disneyland conference center lobby. “What we’re doing in schools should hopefully transition out into the community.”
But critics wonder if police officers make schools safer, or just criminalize misbehaviors that in turn funnel more kids into an already bloated criminal justice system.
Data shows that just having a school-based police officer makes it more likely that a child will be referred to law enforcement for even minor infractions — potentially pushing kids into the justice system for misdeeds like vandalism, more generally known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
This phenomenon is particularly acute for black children, who are 2.3 times more likely than white children to get arrested or referred to law enforcement at school, according to U.S. Department of Education data from the 2013-14 school year.
In the past few years, there has been at least a handful of high-profile incidents of police brutality in schools involving students of color. The most well-known of these occurred at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina, where a school cop put a teenage girl in a chokehold, flipped her over in her seat, and dragged her across the classroom — all for refusing to give up her cellphone.
Canady dismisses critics, especially those who say this system contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. He noted that the juvenile arrest rate for many crimes decreased between 1994 and 2009, and that at the same there was prolific growth in the number of school-based police. Canady says these two trends are related; however, overall arrest rates for many serious crimes also went down during this time. Having more police did not necessarily lead to fewer crimes.
Canady, who spent 25 years working as a police officer and 12 years working in schools before taking over as director of NASRO over five years ago, said he thinks school police officers are “totally necessary” — assuming they have finished specific NASRO training. It’s notable that NASRO did not train the officer involved in the violent Spring Valley incident, he said.
This is a valid concern: Many school districts don’t require the cops in their schools to receive specific training on how to interact with children. That means many police officers who are working in schools have no specialized training to deal with the nuances required in working with children as opposed to adults — and being trained to deal with adult criminals is not necessarily solid preparation for being a contributing member of a school community.
That said, much of NASRO training is focused on preparing officers for extremely rare circumstances like school shootings or terror attacks. But when school-based police officers describe their day-to-day work, it involves a lot of watching and waiting.
“It’s different every single day,” said DJ Schoeff, an officer in Indiana and vice president of NASRO, while sitting in the back of one of the conference’s basic training courses. The SROs in his school greet the kids in the morning, which he said helps students create a trusting relationship with police. He often meets with administrators to talk about emergency operations for the building and lockdown procedures.
Ray Hall, a school police officer in Texas, has similarly low-key days.
“[I] check camera systems, send out emails if cameras are not working correctly or lights are out. I go check the whole school to see if there’s cracks on the concrete or sidewalk or anything dangerous like that,” he said. “I look at the school to see if there’s hidden spaces we can make more visible. Anything dealing with safety.” He travels between district schools to teach a school safety class to kids.
Canady supports this kind of schedule because it is community-oriented and prevention-focused. NASRO encourages cops to become part of students’ lives, but critics say this can be problematic.
Marika Pfefferkorn, a director of the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership, is part of a group that signed off on the proposal. She said counselors, not school-based police officers, should be mentors.
“With counselors, your information is safe, it’s in confidence,” she said. “But you could have the same relationship with a school resource officer, and when you admit or say something, it could become a crime or used against you. That’s an abuse of the relationship.”
Indeed, it’s a difficult balance — one that officers mulled during a basic training course at NASRO’s conference. During one session, two instructors spoke with police officers about the matters into which they can intervene, as well as ethical dilemmas they might encounter. Instructors threw around some hypothetical questions at the training. Should school-based police officers interject when listening to students talk to administrators about discipline matters? At what point do they have to read students their Miranda Rights?
And a particularly murky topic: Can these officers mislead kids to get them to confess to having done something wrong?
“To a certain extent, yes,” concluded an instructor.
You can’t pose as a public defender or priest in order to elicit information, instructors explained. But could you, for example, try to get a confession by typing up a fake lab sheet appearing to show someone’s fingerprints near the area where an incident occurred?
Some officers admit to having done this.
Conversations like these prove how important training is because they highlight the complicated dynamics of being a school police officer, Schoeff said. A lot of the answers to these questions depend on a specific state’s case law, as well as the context of the situation.
Canady said he could see the importance of the job weighing on attendees during the first few days of the conference, especially following the outbreak of protests over police violence and the shooting of police officers in Dallas. Even though these events reflect heightened tensions between police officers and the communities they serve, they only reconfirm Canady’s belief that the country needs to put more focus on school policing.
“The best thing we can do to honor the memories of those officers is to continue to do what we do, making a difference in the lives of kids and keeping them safe at school,” he said. “That’s what we need to do.”