Police assigned to schools — known as school resource officers, or SROs — should deal only with violations of the law.
No, SROs should also be mentors to children — as well as counselors and role models.
Those two divergent points of view were among dozens of topics touched on Tuesday night at the University of South Carolina School of Law, as a panel of scholars sketched academic contexts to the ongoing conversation about the role police officers assigned full time to schools should play.
The subject has been a lively topic in South Carolina since last October, when an SRO at Spring Valley High School in Richland 2 lifted a student out of a chair and flipped her across a classroom during a teacher-student confrontation. The incident was captured on another student’s cellphone video and went viral around the nation, triggering the officer’s firing.
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Tuesday night, the discussion ranged far and wide, centering on race (the student was African-American, the officer was white), student discipline, what SROs do, how to teach behavior modification techniques to both teachers and students, confrontation de-escalation strategies and a host of related topics. The idea that an SRO is also supposed to be a first responder to a mass shooter school situation, as at Columbine, was also touched on.
Christine Christle, an associate professor in USC’s department of educational psychology, warned the 100 or so people present of the cost of not constructively dealing with problem students.
“Why should we care?” Christle asked, displaying a cartoon of a car with two bumper stickers on it. One sticker said, “My son goes to Penn State.” The second sticker said, “My other son is in the State pen.”
The cost of a year at Penn State is $60,000, while the average cost of incarcerating a youth in South Carolina is $155,000 a year, Christle said.
Describing a path educators call the “school to prison pipeline,” Christle said it often begins when a student is disruptive and is suspended. Often, a student is disruptive because they are failing academically, she said, but being suspended only causes the student to fall farther behind academically.
Students who are suspended often drop out of school, and dropping out of school is often a precursor to getting in trouble with the law and being sent to prison, she said.
“We need to keep kids in school because suspending them doesn’t do anybody any good,” Christle said.
Dealing with a problem student means not just dealing with them, but the student’s family, the school environment and the student’s community, she said.
Josh Gupta-Kagan, a USC law professor who specializes in legal issues affecting children, told the audience that, although, it was positive that a legal memorandum of understanding governed what Richland 2’s SROs were responsible for, the language was susceptible to two interpretations.
On one hand, the memorandum says SROs shall not function as school disciplinarians. On the other, it says in the event of “a violation of the law,” the SRO can be called upon to act.
“It’s language like that that can get us into trouble,” Gupta-Kagan said, explaining that under a broadly worded South Carolina criminal law, someone who disrupts a class can be charged with a misdemeanor crime.
Also, sharp racial disparities exist in enforcing the school disturbance law, Gupta-Kagan said. From 2006 to 2009 (the latest years available), some 75 percent of all criminal charges brought against students were brought against African-Americans, who make up only about one-third of the population, he said.
Seth Stoughton, law professor and former police officer, said SROs should not be involved in student discipline matters.
In potentially confrontational situations, de-escalation strategies are key, Stoughton said.
Police have to master what Stoughton described as the “soft touch role,” or “earning cooperation and not demanding compliance.”
For example, instead of shouting at a student to obey, an action almost certain to trigger an equal reaction in the student, Stoughton said an SRO should use a tactic such as kneeling down and saying something like, “Listen, you look like you’re having a really bad day. Why don’t you come to my office and let’s talk about it. You’re not having a good time in here, so let me help you get back on track.”
James Manning, Richland 2 board chair, was in the audience. He said the district is increasingly spending money on a range of services and programs aimed at getting children ready to learn.
“We have to take care of the whole child,” Manning said. Meanwhile, the Legislature is increasing pressure on school districts in other areas, ever requiring new courses on matters such as domestic violence and civics, he said.
Afterward, Richland 2 superintendent Debbie Hamm said the session was productive. “It’s good to hear things from the academic point of view. A lot of it is much more difficult when the rubber starts to hit the road.”
In any case, Hamm said, this district had already begun programs to foster a better learning environment when last October’s Spring Valley High incident happened. Since then, those programs have gotten heightened emphasis, she said.