During my testimony before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on The Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights last month, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman and majority whip, asked me if I am in favor of police on school campuses. To the dismay of some of my friends who stand by my side in this fight to dismantle the "school-to-prison pipeline," I answered a qualified yes. Police on campus, I explained, must be specially trained in adolescent development, crisis intervention and fostering positive relationships with students.
Two days later, a deranged shooter entered the campus of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. killing 20 children and six adults.
Now, the aftermath debate includes placing police on every campus. This issue is reserved for my friends in the other branches of government, but as a judge I am concerned. If police are placed on campus without written protocols defining their role, the results will be disastrous -- just as removing existing police from campus can have unintended consequences.
These friends are adamant that the "simple" solution to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline is the removal of police from campus. This "simple" solution assumes that police are the cancerous cause of the significant spike in the number of low-level offenses.
At first blush my friends seem to have a valid point—the greater the police presence, the greater the risk for arrest. This greater risk does not bode well for most kids because they are wired to do stupid things. Kids are under neurological construction and require the time for maturation.
This logic assumes that it's the police who have interest in arresting students for school fights, disorderly conduct, and disrupting public school. I have visited, along with my technical assistance team supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), many localities from California to Massachusetts to Florida and as far north as Montana and North Dakota, and can positively state that the vast majority of campus police are frustrated with their role. They desire a mission statement with clear objectives, the first being that they are not disciplinarians to be used and abused by school administrators.
I have many police testimonies but will share a recent visit to Broward County, Fla. that is typical of my encounters with school police across the nation. The presiding juvenile judge in Broward County, Judge Elijah Williams, read my articles on school-justice partnerships and developed a stakeholders’ group to develop an agreement to reduce low risk school arrests.
Juvenile court judges are integral players in bringing stakeholders together to develop innovative strategies that can benefit children and the community. This convening power of the judge has proven a key factor in the success of replicating protocols similar to my court, now referred to as the "Positive Student Engagement Model for School Policing."
Broward County was no exception. Judge Williams invited me and Clayton County Police Lieutenant Francisco Romero to Ft. Lauderdale in September 2012 to present the model to the stakeholders. Lt. Romero, a veteran school resource officer, helped me implement our model in 2004. His experiences bring examples of positive student engagement, how developing a relationship with students opens the door of communication and, in turn, sharing of information that prevents weapons and drugs from entering the campus -- not to mention solving crimes in the community, including murder. (What kids hear over the weekend they bring to school on Monday!) Gathering police intelligence requires a positive relationship with students.
During the presentation, the audience of law enforcement displayed the typical stoic demeanor -- no expression. They are difficult to read and if I were a poker player I would refrain from playing with my law enforcement friends. When we concluded, Judge Williams took the podium and asked this question: "By a show of hands, how many would agree to a protocol that prohibits you from arresting a student for any non-violent misdemeanor offense, including possession, not sale.”
They all raised their hands!
The stoic looks were replaced by animated hand gestures with frustrated facial expressions. They spewed opposition to the disciplinarian role school administrators demand. A role oftentimes expected of police by virtue of their presence on campus. A role that has led to SRO's referred to as "Sorry Road Officers" or "Kiddie Cops."
These derogatory descriptions are false for the many trained school resource officers who have chosen to work with adolescents. I refer you to Mo Cannady, director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO). School policing is a specialized field of police work, no different than SWAT, narcotics, DUI Task Force and other areas requiring specialized training.
Any system that relegates a trained and certified peace officer to the role of student disciplinarian is exercising very poor administrative judgment. The disciplinarian role does not require someone with peace officer certification carrying handcuffs and a firearm. That would make them overqualified for the job. A misuse of police officers on campus will not protect the campus from another massacre. It will likely take the officer off the campus due to the high incident of misdemeanor arrests and allow for many to die in the wake of a deranged gunman's wave of bullets.
God forbid there is another shooting and the media asks this one question: "Where was your SRO when the shooting began?" The answer: "At juvenile court booking a kid for a schoolyard fight."
It's not good enough if the SRO calls a road officer from the street to transport the student--it now cuts down the response time for a robbery, burglary, or serious assault in progress.
Major Miguel A. Martinez of the Hallandale Beach Police Department in Broward County, Fla. summed it up: “If the only tool is a cop – than every problem is a crime.”
SRO's were removed from the middle schools in my county to cut costs after the economic downturn. The arrest of middle school students drastically increased. Administrators simply called 911 and got a road officer, untrained in adolescent development.
Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it.