More Good Guys With Guns = More “Comfort” for Parents, More Arrests of Innocents
As one who worked as a high school disciplinarian for six years from 1975-1981 I was not surprised to read the findings reported in “Bullied By the Badge” a Hechinger News article written by Kyle Spencer. The primary source of Mr. Spencer’s article is a forthcoming study by the Washington University Law Review based on the 2010 National Center for Education Statistics data file, students attending schools with Student Resource Officers (SROs) are far more likely to be arrested for misconduct in schools than students without SROs.
As a disciplinarian in a 650 student school in a blue collar suburban Philadelphia district and a 425 student rural Maine High School I dealt with many fights, many instances of bullying, drug and alcohol use, theft, and possession of weapons. In most cases at that time, I had a large degree of discretion in terms of how I would penalize a student for an infraction and given the tenor of those times and the laws on the books seldom engaged the police. Thinking back on some of the fights that occurred, though, I can recall some that bordered on assault in the legal and technical sense and I could see where a reasonable SRO might have filed charges against a student in those cases. I can also recall interviewing both students who engaged in a fight afterward and concluding that punch witnessed by a teacher or me was preceded by a punch thrown by the “victim”. I can also recall interviewing many eyewitnesses to fights and being completely baffled about who was engaged in the melee and spending several hours untangling the issue before determining how to mete out penalties. Finally, I can recall interviewing many combatants who’s personal histories contributed to their actions at school, and who needed counseling more than they needed punishment. The bottom line in recalling these instances is that justice in schools is seldom clear cut and in administering justice to teenagers I found it better to look at the broad context of the student’s development and not “the book”.
As anecdotes in Mr. Spencer’s article indicate and articles like the one written by Breanna Edwards’ for The Root indicate, when well intentioned school boards hire SROs their mistakes can have horrific consequences for children who are wrongly arrested, for children who’s punishments are disproportionate to the “crimes”, and for children who enter into the criminal justice system for offenses that might have resulted in an in-school suspension and parent conference in the era when I was a disciplinarian.
But here’s the reality: there were several times when I would have welcomed an SRO in school— IF I could select the SRO myself. Having a police presence would have been especially helpful when feuds from outside the school were brought into our hallways or when I needed an extra set of eyes to monitor “hot spots” in school where we believed drug transactions were taking place. But some of the police officers I dealt with in both communities where I worked wold have been disastrous if they were assigned to school while others would be valued team members… and in some cases the officers who would have been the worst match would have been first in line to sign up for the assignment if one was available.
And here’s another reality: as a disciplinarian and later as a Superintendent I heard from many parents who would echo the sentiments of two parents quoted in Mr. Spencer’s article:
David Johnson, the treasurer of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, says he believes removing hostile students helps administrators maintain “a safe environment.”
And Pam Pilgrim, the mother of a junior at the school, says she is “comforted” by the presence of school-based police officers and “the actions they are taking.”
The rationale for supporting the deployment of SROs is articulated by the administrators quoted in the article:
(Terry MS) Superintendent Delesicia Martin… attributes arrests to students making “bad choices. You can make good choices or you can make bad choices,” she said. “And they have to understand that if they make bad choices, there could be the possibility of a bad consequence going along with it.”
Terry High School principal Roy Balentine… says officers make his school “safe and orderly.” Students are sufficiently warned about the consequences of behavioral infractions, like fighting. And he is certain those who commit those infractions “are dealt with appropriately.”
On balance, I prefer an inter-agency relationship where the police work in tandem with the school administrators when they are called upon and the police and school work out protocols for engagement in advance. Those kinds of relationships need to be forged over time and tend to be emerge from personal interactions as opposed to legislation. But in the end, those kinds of relationships are best for the schools, best for the parents, and best for the community. SROs, like so many of the “solutions” for the problems facing public schools, are relatively cheap, very fast, and very easy to explain and understand… and that’s why their deployment is expanding.