School Resource Officers…Crossing the Line?

  • May 23, 2016

BY ZANETA LOWE, News Channel 3 WREG Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. --

Kids slammed to the floor. Teenagers punched by grown men. When do school resource officers cross the line? 

SROs are law enforcement officers placed at schools. They still work for their respective agency, and not the school district, but their main goal is to bridge the gap between law enforcement and our youth. However, WREG spoke to advocates who worry that gap is only getting wider as incidents of violence become more prevalent.

The News Channel 3 Investigators spoke with a Mid-South family about an incident involving their daughter and a school resource officer. When we sat down with Krystal Polk she said she never imagined her daughter, Krystin, would be handcuffed and hauled off to juvenile detention from school. "It was very heartbreaking and I don't think I slept that night worrying about her," said Polk.

WREG was told all three of the Polk's children are autistic and Krystin attends a school for special needs children in Desoto County. Her mother described what happened the day of the incident. "She had a breakdown. When she breaks down, she screams, she runs, she kicks, hits, bites."

Behaviors, Polk said, that are all outlined in Krystin's Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, a federally required document for children with special needs. On the day of the incident, Krystin ran away from school twice. "He grabbed her arm. When he grabbed her arm, she swung at him, she was able to overcome him. So he took it upon himself to call the judge and get a warrant and have her arrested, describing her as a juvenile delinquent," said Polk.

Because it was so late in the day when Krystin was booked, she had to spend the night in juvenile detention. Her mom told WREG, "It was very scary. She didn't understand what was going on." Polk said it shouldn't have gotten that far, especially since Krystin's school is designed for kids like her. "I thought that was very wrong of the officer to do that knowing that is why she was there."

"There are going to be people who watch this that are going to say, 'okay, look, if she was a danger to herself or to someone else, and she was able to overcome him, then he had a right to restrain her.' How do you respond to that?" WREG asked. "I think he had a right to get her to a safe environment," Polk responded.

A different ending to stories like Krystin's is what advocates said they are pushing for. School resource officers are only supposed to get involved in crisis situations. Yet, recent research showed confrontations between students and police are up and so are arrests, especially among black students and those with special needs.

National Association of State Boards of Education Report

US Dept of Education Office of Civil Rights Data

Gina Brady is the Directory of Advocacy for Disability Rights Tennessee. "We don't want to label our kids as criminals." She said what her agency often sees is schools using resource officers to circumvent the law. "Instead of dealing with it, I can call somebody else to come in and now it's out of my hands. I don't have to worry about reporting it to the state because it wasn't our staff that did it, it was the police officer that did it, and I don't have to report on the police officer, because he's not a school employee."

Tennessee and Mississippi are two of just a handful of states that require training for resource officers.Brady said that's the key. "I think if we can get more training, I thing that would be very helpful because I really think, the SROs that we've been involved with, they care too."

The Mississippi ACLU has been sharing stories like Krystin's in hopes of accomplishing just that. Erik Fleming is the Director of Advocacy and Policy. "In the law it says that they have two years to be trained and the turn over is too high for that so, we've been pushing through the legislative process to get that training done at the beginning of the school year." Training that would have a greater focus on student needs.

Mo Canady is the Executive Director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. The NASRO has taken a clear position on this issue.

Among several things, it stated:

  • Formal school discipline should rest with school administrators
  • SROs should be carefully selected, trained and placed
  • Use of physical restraint is rarely necessary

Canady said the organization has already updated its training courses to reflect some of the current needs.

"Now that a lot of societal issues are changing and shifting, we certainly see the need that we're keeping up with that, things like understanding the teen brain, things like, special, understanding special needs situations," explained Canady. Canady also said districts and law enforcement agencies should develop a memorandum of understanding. It's this type of progress parents like Polk want to hear about. "I think some things need to be changed," she said. A culture where all of the adults are on the same page, focused on what's best for the children.

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) is a nonprofit legal services organization that provides free legal advocacy services to protect the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities.

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