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News & Observer column: No need for cops in schools

School busesIn case you missed it this weekend, The News & Observer’s Barry Saunders has offered up his characteristically spirited take on the stewing debate over police officers in schools following the disturbing Jan. 3 altercation captured on tape at Rolesville High.

It’s a fascinating read, and it comes, as Policy Watch reported last week, with protesters planing to call for the removal of all school resource officers (SROs) from Wake County schools.

From the N&O:

Former Wake County Schools Superintendent Bill McNeal talked to me about back in his day recently, but it was not with any rose-colored nostalgia in which all kids were Wally and the Beav or those mischievous little tykes from a “Family Circus” comic strip.

McNeal, an educator since the 1970s who served six years as Wake superintendent, acknowledged when we spoke last week that “there were disruptive students when I started, but the world was a little different, not everyone was carrying a gun and there was greater support for schools among parents. That meant that students knew what was expected of them.”

Today? Not so much, he said. That’s why, he said, he has no problem with School Resource Officers being in schools “if they are well-trained and integrated into the fabric of the school.”

Ah, but there, as the noble bard wrote, is the rub.

Not all SROs are well-trained or integrated into the school’s fabric. Some apparently approach their assignment as being on the front lines of an undeclared war.

After watching Rolesville police officer Ruben De Los Santos make like he was Superfly Jimmy Snuka – R.I.P., Superfly – and try to suplex that little 16-year-old girl to the floor, many people are questioning whether we need SROs in schools. Others of us know the answer: NO!

McNeal feels differently, though.

“I’m not going to throw all SROs under the bus” because of the actions of a few, he said.

Neither, fortunately, do all SROs throw little girls around as brutally as De Los Santos and others have done in recorded encounters.

It’s important, McNeal said, “that there are clearly defined roles, and that administrators are handling certain things and are not putting SROs in difficult situations. At the end of the day, you have to remember that they are, in fact, law enforcement, and their responsibility is different from administrators.”

Right on. When teachers call a cop – and regardless of how one puts it, SROs are cops – on a kid for not putting away a cellphone or for back-talking, they are possibly endangering that child’s health and future. You mean to tell me teachers couldn’t have broken up that Rolesville High School fight – one in which witneses say the cop-assaulted girl wasn’t even a participant – without concussing a young girl and, in the bargain, possibly giving her a criminal record? You mean educators couldn’t have found a way to turn that into a “teachable” moment in which discipline was administered by the school and parents, not the law?

As we noted last week, the debate comes weeks before members of the Wake County Board of Education were scheduled to take up their expiring memorandum of understanding with local law enforcement agencies anyway.

Officials have said they plan to scrutinize that agreement, particularly after the Rolesville incident. Rolesville Police Chief Bobby Langston says an investigation of the Rolesville violence is underway.

In the meantime, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Saunders’ column Sunday is the data he spotlights:

Oh, but schools today are so much more violent than they were 20, 30 years ago, right?

Wrong, and I’ve got proof. Matthew Theriot, a professor at the University of Tennessee who has done extensive research on SROs – SROs, my butt: cops in schools – directed me to some of his studies showing that, while more schools are using them, violence in schools had already begun declining precipitously since 1993. It continues dropping.

Theriot’s studies show something else, something that isn’t surprising: Students in schools with cops are three times more likely to be arrested than students in schools without cops, and five times more likely to be arrested for “disorderly conduct,” a nebulous charge that’s hard to refute and easy to make stick.

You don’t need a Ph.D to figure out that more cops mean more arrests, but it’s good to have a Ph.D. show empirical data confirming it. Theriot also noted that, as of 2010, half of all public schools had SROs, and that percentage is likely to grow because the Department of Justice has provided money for more cops.

Isn’t it funny how there’s always money for more cops and jails but seldom for more tutors, teachers and after-school programs?

You’re right: ’Tain’t funny.

Are there times when officers will be needed at schools?

Indubitably, but with this new invention called – let’s see, what’s that thing called? – oh yeah, a TELEPHONE, officers can be on campus within minutes, possibly seconds.

Theriot’s research also noted that adults “sometimes perceive an increased police presence as indicative of disorder” and that their presence “will heighten students’ fears of violence and adversely affect the learning environment.”

That’s why they don’t need to be in schools until summoned. Who, precisely, was Officer De Los Santos serving and protecting when he slammed that child to the floor like that? Or who was that cop in South Carolina protecting last year when he put a young girl in a headlock and flung her all around a classroom floor because she wouldn’t stand up when he said to?

At least he is no longer a cop.

A disobedient student – gee, whoever heard of that? – refusing to get out of her seat may challenge the teacher’s and officer’s authority, but is it really criminal behavior?

Continue to follow Policy Watch as we report on the protests in Wake County schools.

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