Law Enforcement Forced Into Role Confusion in Schools

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Judge Steven Teske

Judge Steven Teske“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

The captain, a prison warden, uttered these words in the movie classic “Cool Hand Luke” after beating Luke with a whip for his stubborn disobedience.

These words describe the underlying cause of the South Carolina classroom altercation resulting in the firing of a deputy.

This “failure to communicate” dilemma plays out on multiple levels and is not restricted to those working in the weeds. This dilemma extends beyond the school campus and permeates the atmosphere of upper management where school administrators reside, and it goes higher into the stratosphere where our legislative, judicial and executive state officials reside.

We too often stay stuck on the ground where the action occurred, blinded by the weeds. Are we that naïve to think that what happens in the weeds is not influenced by those residing in the  clouds that rain down policies like zero tolerance?

Don’t get me wrong.

The deputy’s conduct was inexplicable and his firing justified, but what made the deputy, and the principal who requested his presence, think it was OK to involve law enforcement in a school rule infraction? It may be true that the deputy breached the rules governing the mechanics of arrest, but the problem isn’t going away because the deputy was fired.

When law enforcement are summoned to enforce a school rule, incompatible demands are placed on them — a social psychological phenomena called “role conflict.” When this occurs, law enforcement are asked to step out of their law enforcement shoes and wear another size that doesn’t fit.

This conflict can cause “role confusion” for some law enforcement who intuitively know that being asked to enforce a school rule is confusing and wrestle with which role should be assumed. The conflict that leads to confusion can lead to “role strain” — when law enforcement feel inadequate, which can cause poor judgment in those situations involving breaking school rules as opposed to serious criminal conduct such as weapons and drugs.

The deputy’s conduct was inexplicable, but so was his presence in the classroom. Who is to blame for that inexplicable scenario?

So long as school and law enforcement policymakers fail to communicate to the worker bees what they can and cannot do in disciplinary matters, disobedient students will be physically assaulted by conflicted, confused and strained law enforcement.

Fortunately, the school superintendent in South Carolina acknowledged their systemic faux pas, saying, “Conversations that have already started will continue around how we work with the sheriff’s department on improvement and coordination of our work as educators and their work as law enforcement officers.”

[Related: States Should Mandate School-justice Partnership to End Violence Against Our Children]

Unfortunately, the skies should have opened long before this incident, but how tragic if the rest of the skies don’t open up to shine a light on the problem of role conflict.

Educators need training on best practices in classroom management like Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions (PBIS) so they don’t feel law enforcement is required to enforce school rules.

Notwithstanding evidence-based practices, we must not neglect our responsibility as adults to act like an adult.

When Susie refused to turn over the cellphone, would it hurt to say, “Susie, we will discuss this later with your foster mom” and move on with instruction?

Taking this road less traveled leads to no principal, deputy, altercation and no firing.

For those who enjoy the road most traveled, and are compelled to challenge the student’s disobedience in the presence of the class, be careful what you ask for, because you may not like what you get. Trying to reason with a kid who is neurologically wired to do stupid things and in the presence of their peers is a battle best fought another day and in a safer place.

When we respond to kids who make us angry with anger, we allow them to rent space in our head. When we let kids reside in our head, we risk acting like them, and that is never flattering.

Oh! Did I say foster mom?

That’s right — Susie’s mom had recently died.

What does this say about the climate of a school when this trauma is not considered? If they didn’t know, they should have known, and if they knew, shame on them.

When superintendents don’t communicate expectations, then administrators make poor decisions; and when administrators make poor decisions, the roles are conflicted; and when the roles are conflicted, the adults are confused; and when the adults are confused, the kids get hurt; and when kids get hurt, then it’s time to create a school-justice partnership that defines roles to avoid confusion.

Without a partnership, school resource officers risk stepping outside their role. Like Cool Hand Luke, they may become a “whipping boy” for a system flawed by its failure to communicate.

Steven Teske is chief judge of the Juvenile Court of Clayton County, Ga., and vice chairman of the Governor’s Office For Children and Families. He is a past president of the Council of Juvenile Court Judges and has been appointed by the governor to the Children & Youth Coordinating Council, DJJ Judicial Advisory Council, Commission on Family Violence, and the Governor’s Office for Children and Families.

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