Debate Forum 11/10/15

Readin’, writin’, really?

Do police officers belong in schools?

By Tim Walker

“When I was young,” an old man once wrote in the Dayton City Paper, “there weren’t any policemen in school. You got out of line, they dragged you to the principal’s office and paddled your little ass.”

Times change, however. …Or do they?

Recently, a high school in South Carolina made national news for reasons that had nothing to do with test scores or graduation. Spring Valley High School is one of many schools across the country that employ the help of school resource officers (SRO), law enforcement officers who provide additional security and crime prevention services. Spring Valley’s SRO, Ben Fields, was recently fired after a classroom cell phone video went viral, a video that began with Fields restraining and throwing a female student from her chair after she refused to comply with his instructions.

This incident has raised questions about the role of police officers in dispensing discipline in school. School resource officers are sworn law enforcement officers who are responsible for providing security and crime prevention services in American schools. Currently, there are over 46,000 officers such as these working in this country, all assigned to patrol our schools and keep our children safe, according to the website of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

But recent incidents, including the one in South Carolina, have raised questions about the need for SROs in schools. In August, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit alleging that an SRO in Kentucky had unlawfully handcuffed and restrained an 8-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl—both of whom suffered from disabilities. Video accompanying the lawsuit shows the boy crying as his biceps are handcuffed behind his back by the officer. The boy allegedly suffers from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a history of trauma. Also, in Oklahoma City last week, a city police officer who had been reassigned as an SRO was placed on administrative leave and now faces assault charges after admitting that he struck a 16-year-old student in the face. The conflict resulted from the student ignoring the SRO’s repeated instructions to report to the gym.

Proponents of having police officers in schools claim that they indeed keep the environment not only safe but focused on education. A police presence in schools protects both our teachers and our children, they say. The presence of law enforcement simply ensures an environment where children will be able to learn, unafraid of bullies, attacks or armed gunmen. Discipline, they say, begins at home—and if a spoiled teenager is mouthy or unruly and needs to be restrained, then that is ultimately the fault of the parent, not the responding school resource officer who is trying to keep the peace.

Opponents claim police officers do not belong in schools. They say our schools are among the safest in the world, and that a police presence in them is simply unnecessary. The presence of SROs might desensitize students to law enforcement and is more of a problem than a solution. Police officers are trained to respond to situations in certain ways, they insist—and if tense situations with students get out of hand, as they sometimes do, then those officers will respond accordingly in ways that might quickly escalate into violence.

We are taught from childhood that police officers can be trusted, and that schools are safe places where children can learn. But is a combination of the two safe and effective for both parties? Is it really necessary for us to have law enforcement officers standing by in our schools to quell violent behavior? Does the presence of an SRO somehow encourage defiance? Or do police officers in schools simply reflect the realities of the world we now live in?

Tim Walker is 50 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their 2 children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz and black t-shirts. Reach him atTimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

A recipe for disaster

By Robby Soave

Spring Valley High School Resource Officer Ben Fields’ decision to knock a defiant female student out of her desk, drag her across a classroom, and pin her against the floor—a horrific assault captured on video and widely shared on social media—was completely unjustified.
It was unjustified, no matter how much inappropriate behavior preceded it. It was unjustified, even if school authorities had every reason to expel the student from the classroom. It was unjustified, precisely because there is no conceivable circumstance in which it’s okay for a cop to brutalize an unarmed, unthreatening teen girl.
But it isn’t enough to criticize this one police officer for committing a terrible crime against a teen. We must also criticize the culture of misplaced fear about safety in schools—a culture that requires cops to patrol high school classrooms as if they were prisons.
The sheriff’s office has asked the FBI to investigate the incident, and Fields is on leave while the authorities examine whether he broke any policies. He is entitled to a fair and judicious review of his actions, of course. But if he were somehow cleared of wrongdoing, it would not mean that his actions were correct. It would only mean that official policy is far too deferential to the men with guns in schools.
This isn’t Fields’ first run-in with controversy. According to The New York Times, a student who was expelled for “gang activity” sued the officer in November of 2013 for “recklessly and unfairly” accusing black students of being in gangs. This student was expelled after getting into a fight behind a store near the school. The case has not yet gone to trial.
Some students—black students—said Fields was tough but fair, and were surprised at what they saw in the video. Other students offered a less positive appraisal of the man’s approach toward delinquency:
Nygel King, 16, another sophomore, said that Officer Fields “acted like a typical cop” in the hallways—“But never in a bad way,” he said.
The video, he said, stunned him. “For one, she wasn’t resisting at all,” he said. “And two, I’ve never seen him be super-aggressive with another student.”
But some of the students said that they had heard that Officer Fields had a reputation for treating students harshly when he was called to intervene in a skirmish or make an arrest. Several of them told stories, but about incidents they had only heard about, not personally seen. What it said about Officer Fields’ record was not altogether clear: It is, perhaps, an immutable law of nature that an officer in a school will be treated, in some quarters, with a certain amount of suspicion.
The article refers to cops in schools as if they reflect some perfectly natural state of affairs—as if cops are just as indispensable as teachers, janitors and principals. In fact, cops did not become a ubiquitous presence in public education until recently. While the term “school resource officer” first came into being in the 1950s, it wasn’t until the ’80s that schools began hiring cops en masse. Between the late ’90s and 2007, the number of SROs nationwide increased to 19,000 (a 55 percent rise).
Do police officers decrease crime in schools? In some cases, sure. But schools are already very safe places. And in a very real sense, the involvement of SROs increases crime, since the mere presence of a cop often escalates a minor infraction of school rules into a criminal matter. It does this by definition, since the police are invariably involved, even in situations that should be resolved by competent administrators, counselors, or parents.
Take the girl who wouldn’t leave her desk at Spring Valley High School. Is she making trouble? Sure. Is she a criminal? No. But now she’s been arrested anyway—the involvement of Officer Fields rendered this a foregone conclusion.
The girl should count herself lucky, I suppose, that she wasn’t killed in the process. But we should expect better for the millions of young people compelled to attend public education in this country. We should not teach them, from a very early age, that small acts of defiance will be met with vastly disproportionate state-sanctioned force. We should not funnel these kids—many of them racially and socioeconomically disadvantaged—into the criminal justice system for making the kinds of mistakes that perfectly regular, well-adjusted kids have been making for centuries. And we should not pretend that public safety requires these trade-offs.

Robby Soave is a staff editor at Reason.com, where this column first appeared. You can reach him at ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com.

SROs know best

By Mike Snead

In the recent case of a South Carolina school deputy sheriff physically handling a defiant student while arresting the student for criminal behavior, I accept the sheriff’s judgment that the deputy acted improperly in this case. However, not knowing all of the details of this incident and reading the deputy’s apparent record of prior generally favorable performance causes concern that the bar has been raised too high when police officers are called on to deal with unruly youth. Such incidents are often physically and emotionally charged.
This South Carolina school incident calls into examination the policy of having police officers in schools and, if they are to be there, what their responsibilities should be. Recent events with attacks on school children while in school by outsiders demonstrate the wisdom of having police officers routinely, if not full time, stationed in schools. The growing violence in our real world society has crept into the idealistic learning environment we strive to create for our children’s education and we must proactively respond to this potential violence.
This then leaves the question of what involvement should such police officers have with disciplining or removing unruly students who fail to abide by the lawful directions of teachers and school administrators? This question really centers on what should be reasonable expectations of our children and how and who should respond to unruly behavior and, especially, with rebellious behavior.
Youthful rebellion against authority has probably always existed among a percentage of the population. It may, in fact, be a natural psychological aberration necessary for long-term human survival. With some exceptions, our society tolerates some youthful rebellion because our experience has been that most leave this rebellion behind as they mature. This tolerance, however, involves an expectation of parents defining wrong from right, placing clear boundaries on behavior, and punishing misbehavior. When I was young the police generally took rebellious youths home to have this discipline invoked. Having a police car parked in front of one’s home was a local social stigma that parents wished to avoid.
I very much appreciate those who willingly become police officers to professionally serve and protect our society. It is a demanding 365-day-a-year job that must be done. The fact that this is still accomplished by volunteer civil servants rather than the military or private mercenary police officers is an unrecognized blessing for our society. This is a key point to always keep in mind when deciding how to treat our police in general and specific officers, in particular, when incidents such as this arise. We must always try to put ourselves in their shoes acknowledging that, like them, we are also imperfect in our behavior, especially in emotionally trying circumstances.
The critical question to answer is, what should these officers do in response to unruliness-turned-rebelliousness. In the South Carolina incident, the student was, apparently, intentionally misbehaving and disregarding directions of the teacher and school administrator. With the student’s disruptive actions, the learning environment of that classroom was destroyed. The rebellious student was intentionally denying the other students the opportunity to learn. Undisciplined bad behavior becomes emotionally reinforced to yield more future bad behavior that is often contagious and spreads to others. How far would you have let this incident proceed? To the point of a complete breakdown of the authority of the teacher over that class? To the point of the complete breakdown of instruction in that school that day as the contagion of unruliness spread to other students?
There is no graceful answer to what to do with unruly children living in an ineffective family environment where the parenting necessary to successfully raise a child is not happening. The adolescent mind, even in high school, has often not yet achieved the emotional-logical balance we refer to as adulthood. Consequently, verbally reasoning with unruly youth generally doesn’t work, as the South Carolina incident demonstrated. In such cases, do we allow rebellious youths to effectively be “in charge” by leaving them to do as they wish? Or do we have trained disciplinary officers use physical force, if necessary, to take charge of the student and remove the student from the classroom? If you believe that taking charge is important to uphold order in the classroom, what then do you accept to be done with a student physically resisting removal as happened in this incident? Where should we draw the line on what the police officer can do? The answer is to place trust in the police officer, by virtue of their training and the respect and support they have from the community, to act appropriately while recognizing that some physical force may be necessary for unruly students who resist lawful police orders. Absent this, there will be anarchy in more of our schools with long-term negative consequences many adolescents, such as this unruly student, fail to comprehend.
The growing progressive movement to give minors political voice and to take unwarranted legal actions to protect unruly minors is harmful to society. Social media with these messages reinforces unruly behavior and, on occasion, prompts criminal behavior. Progressives intentionally seeking anarchy, as in now clearly apparent, foster such disruptive behavior by minors. To prevent anarchy, each community should have the authority to define the permitted policing standards necessary to enforce desired student conduct in their schools.

Mike Snead is a professional aerospace engineer focused on advanced human spaceflight and energy systems. You can reach him at MikeSnead@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Tim Walker
Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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