From South Carolina to Texas and around the country, stories involving students and school police keep making the headlines and sparking debate. We can all agree that it would be better for the school police officers, the students, and everyone else involved if these incidents never happened in the first place. Here are three steps we can take to reduce the number of incidents.
1. Capitalize on the new Texas school police training to ensure officers are prepared – even in districts where the training is optional
The only required training for police officers working in our schools is focused on dealing with the criminals on our streets, even though police in schools almost exclusively interact with students.
Earlier this year the Texas Legislature wisely recognized this challenge and passed legislation promoted by Texans Care for Children (HB 2684) requiring that police working in our schools – either employed by a school district or on contract through a local department – receive youth-specific training.The training is currently in development and is expected to be available in January.It will include child and adolescent development, the mental and behavioral health needs of children with disabilities or special needs, de-escalation techniques, tactics for limiting the use of force and restraints, mental health crisis intervention, and other subjects.
Unfortunately, the training is only required of officers in school districts with 30,000 or more students.That leaves more than half of all Texas students, and the school officers who work with them, at a higher risk. Officers working in Round Rock ISD, for example, where two high-profile school police incidents have occurred recently, are required to receive the new training. However, the training is optional for nearby Bastrop ISD, where a deputy sheriff used a Taser on student Noe Niño de Rivera after the 17-year-old broke up a fight. As a result, Noe fell to the ground, spent 52 days in a coma, and will suffer a traumatic brain injury for the rest of his life.
For the sakes of students and officers, all school districts, including the "smaller” ones, should ensure their officers are trained to work with the population they deal with every day – students.
2. Give teachers better tools so they only call law enforcement officers to help with law enforcement matters
By providing teachers appropriate training and supports for handling behavior and classroom management challenges, we can keep these issues out of the law enforcement domain. When schools implement school-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), teachers are provide the tools and the framework to manage their classroom in a way that keeps students on track and learning.
The Legislature has endorsed more training for teachers and other school personnel to recognize students’ mental health challenges. The training will help teachers understand the signs of a student who has been through trauma, for example, and respond in a way that avoids escalating the situation.
When a teacher does need assistance, our policymakers should make sure she has the on-site counselors, administrators, or other supports to call on rather than resorting to police for non-law enforcement matters.
3. Collect, report, and act on data on school police activity
The viral videos of incidents involving students and school police officers provide a valuable snapshot, but we need better information. Surprisingly, neither schools nor police are required to track and report when officers arrest, file a complaint against, use force on, or restrain students, so we don’t know how often – or why – it happens.
We know from past research and open records requests by advocacy partners that a handful of districts or school police departments do collect data on some of their activities. From the data that has been gathered in the past, it is clear that activities and practices of police on campuses varies from district to district. However, when that data cited above is broken down by students’ race, it becomes disturbingly clear that in Texas schools youth of color are disproportionately involved with police and subjected to use of force more often than white youth.
For parents, school leaders, and state policymakers to understand how police are operating in our schools and craft effective policies, we need better data.
Taking these three steps will ensure that more of our students can focus on learning and more of our school police officers can focus on keeping them safe.