Is an officer allowed to throw a student out of a chair? And other reasonable questions.

By Hadley Robinson

By now you’ve probably seen the video. A school resource officer violently flips, slams and drags a student out of her chair as her classmates watch, some filming the incident on their phones. Immediately after the video went viral, social media erupted in a flood of questions about the presence of police in schools, and how classroom discipline should be handled.

AJ+ did some research, including speaking to Lisa Thurau, executive director of Strategies for Youth, an organization that seeks to improve police/youth relationships. We wanted to get some answers to your most pressing questions about “school resource officers.”

Q: What’s the difference between a school resource officer and a police officer?

A: Not much. School resource officers are usually police officers assigned full time to a school. According to a report to Congress, they are supposed to be part law enforcement, part problem solver, and part educator.

Here’s how the Richland County School District, where the incident in South Carolina occurred, describes the program:

The overall goals of the program are to maintain a safe and secure learning environment on the school campus, influence the development of positive attitudes by youth towards the law enforcement community, and to reduce juvenile crime through the use of intervention strategies, proactive policing, and networking.

It’s safe to say that the resource officer assigned to Spring Valley High, Ben Fields, was not satisfying the goals of the program. He was fired this week.

Q: Was it legal for Fields to throw the student to the ground?

A: We won’t know the legality of actions in this case until an investigation is complete. We do know Fields was fired for violating department policy, and both the Justice Department and the FBI are investigating the incident.

Q: How could a police officer have better handled the situation at Spring Valley High?

A: Thurau’s organization, Strategies for Youth, leads training for officers on techniques to de-escalate situations. Here’s what she said about the incident:

“There are other school resource officers who would never make the cardinal mistake the teacher, assistant principal and resource officer did — get into a power struggle with a teen girl in front of her peers. Teenagers are not interested in appearing powerless in front of their peers. What we would have recommended is to immediately remove the audience. Go over to the kid, crouch down, whisper, ‘Let’s you and me take this outside, so it doesn’t get ugly.’”

Q: Must officers adhere to a different standard when using force on minors, compared to adults?

The answer isn’t cut and dry, but in general police officers can use force on minors just as they do for adults, and they are usually given pretty wide latitude to make that determination.

There has been some pushback as more videos of school incidents involving minors have surfaced. A judge in Alabama recently found officers could not pepperspray students for minor infractions, after eight students sued.

But physical restraint appears common in schools. According to a ProPublica investigation, restraints and seclusion were used on students 267,000 times nationwide in the 2012 school year. Sometimes they result in head injuries, broken bones or worse. How the courts treat juveniles in the legal system varies from state to state.

A video of a high school student emerged in October showing a cop choking a teenager for arguing in the halls.

“The judges are telling officers the schools are just like the street and the kids are not any different than adults.” — Lisa Thurau, executive director of Strategies for Youth

Q: Why are police officers in schools?

A: With spikes in crime in the ’80s and early ’90s, legislation was passed encouraging partnerships between schools and law enforcement. Then, in 1999, federal funds from the Department of Justice “Cops in Schools” program dramatically increased the number of schools with armed officers. After Columbine, the government spent an estimated $876 million to put about 7,000 police officers in schools.

After the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and some legislators wanted more cops in schools. Since then, the Justice Department has spent $67 million more to put another 540 officers in schools nationwide.

Graphic by Skyler Rodriguez

Q: Who oversees school resource officers?

A: This can be unclear in some school districts, and that’s a large part of the problem.

“We find there is very little oversight. There’s often confusion about who the officer reports to — the principal or the police department. You’re not seeing states issue careful guidelines. They’re allowing it to go district by district (regarding) how officers should behave in schools.” — Lisa Thurau, executive director of Strategies for Youth

Some districts and states require additional training for the officers placed in schools, but it’s not standardized. The U.S. Department of Education released some guiding principles in 2014. They suggest clarity and agreement among the school and agencies about the role of law enforcement, and rigorous training of school resource officers.

Q: Does it help to have police officers in schools?

A: The answer isn’t always clear, especially because there is a lack of data collection documenting incidents involving school police officers.

“In some schools, when you place a student resource officer (SRO) there, the arrests go wild. In other places, you place SROs and you don’t see an increase in arrests because they use their role differently,” says Thurau.

The Department of Education reported 260,000 students were referred to law enforcement and 92,000 were arrested during the 2011–2012 school year. No national data exists about the nature of the incidents, but several states have reported higher arrest rates in schools with cops.

And schools, for the most part, are not dangerous places. The number of youth homicides that occur in schools is just one to two percent of the total number of youth homicides each year.

Q: Where are school police officers most commonly found?

A: A 2013 study found security measures like metal detectors, drug-sniffing police dogs and school resource officers were more common in schools with poorer children and in communities of color. This is despite the fact that increased security has often come as a result of high-profile school shootings, which more frequently occur in affluent, white schools.

“Where the student resource officers are placed is a reflection of race and socioeconomic status… They’ve demonstrated empirically that the distribution of the police approach to school safety is disproportionately for youth of color in poor areas. We are not seeing the prevalence of either law enforcement agents or arrests from enforcement in white, suburban, wealthy communities.” — Lisa Thurau, executive director of Strategies for Youth
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