Nearly two months after a video of a violent altercation between a school resource officer (SRO) and a Rolesville high schooler spurred outrage, a small panel of Wake County leaders urged a fundamental rethinking of on-campus cops’ role, as well as a greater investment in school counselors, nurses and mentors.
Panel members—addressing an estimated 150 or so Wake residents who packed Rolesville Town Hall Thursday night—suggested school leaders should reduce the growing role SROs play in U.S. schools today, a trend critics blame for exacerbating teen arrests and the so-called “school to prison pipeline.”
“If we want to make an investment in school resource officers, we should limit their role to what it started off being, which is to protect and serve,” said Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes.
In addition to Holmes, Thursday’s panel of Wake leaders included Sheriff Donnie Harrison, Board of Education Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler, District Court Judge Craig Croom and Rolesville Mayor Frank Eagles.
The forum convened with an internal investigation still ongoing into the Jan. 3 incident at Rolesville High School, in which SRO Ruben De Los Santos of the Rolesville Police Department slammed a teenage girl to the ground during a campus fight. According to media reports, the teen was attempting to break up the fight.
A video of the incident went viral in the hours that followed, sparking criticism from a host of community leaders, as well as the ACLU of N.C. It comes amid a growing contingency of researchers, advocates and groups like the non-partisan Congressional Research Service questioning the use of SROs in U.S. schools.
And at least one unidentified man who spoke Thursday was still palpably angry over the January altercation.
Rolesville Police Chief Bobby Langston declined to comment on the investigation, although he urged patience from members of the community.
“It’s an unfortunate situation that occurred, but everybody is due a due process,” said Langston.
In addition to criticism of the officer, some community leaders have endorsed a spate of reforms, including greater training for SROs and tweaking of the school system’s agreements with 10 local law enforcement agencies, including Rolesville police, serving in Wake schools.
Some protesters argued campus police officers should be removed from schools altogether, citing research that indicates their presence increases the chances students will leave high school with a criminal record.
And, although she stopped short of backing wholesale removal of SROs from schools, Holmes said Thursday that leaders must take stock of the data.
“In the old days, kids would get into a fight in the cafeteria and it would mean a trip to the principal’s office,” said Holmes. “Nowadays, that same kid gets into a fight in the cafeteria and they get handcuffed.”
For some, the controversy over school police has re-energized advocates behind the “Raise the Age” movement. As Holmes pointed out Thursday, North Carolina is one of just two states in the U.S. that charges 16- and 17-year-old offenders as adults.
Sheriff Harrison spoke to the increasingly complicated role of SROs in North Carolina schools today, noting that, while their primary goal is to ensure school safety, campus officers also have to act as mentors and, sometimes, arbiters of school discipline, one role that’s prompted criticism from a variety of stakeholders.
“That’s not why they’re there,” said Eagles.
Harrison added that, with multiple law enforcement agencies serving Wake schools, it’s difficult to obtain consistency in SRO practices. The sheriff said he believes local schools should create their own specialized police force.
“Every time something happens in the schools, things are pointed at the police officers,” Harrison complained.
Most panelists and community members Thursday seemed to agree on one thing: Schools need more adults, be they teachers, counselors, nurses or mentors.
Holmes called the district’s ratio of students to nurses and counselors “embarrassing.”
“It’s simply not possible for (teachers) to be momma, daddy, auntie, uncle and a nurse all at the same time,” she added.
Johnson-Hostler stressed the importance of school officials serving the “whole child’s needs,” which means assisting in the factors at home—particularly poverty—that may be hampering children in school.
She pointed to a school pantry program in some Wake schools that allows children to get free access to fruits and vegetables they might not otherwise be able to obtain at home.
The school board chair also urged community discussion of “implicit bias” in policing, coupled with enhanced SRO training.
“The reality is implicit bias is a real thing and every one of us has it,” said Johnson-Hostler.
Community organizers behind Thursday’s forum say they plan to host another event in March as they push reforms in Wake schools.