Back to School Edition
Newsletter August 10, 2021
Palm Springs Unified School District, in Riverside County, California, decided to suspend their “school resource officer” (SRO) program – code word for “school cops” – has all of the law enforcement agencies in Riverside blaming “defund the police” and the libs. In the news and on social media, law enforcement (the sheriff and leaders from the surrounding city police departments, who also supply SROs to the school in Palm Springs) have spread stories about how removing officers from schools is asking for danger.
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco, who employs at least one SRO in Palm Springs, called it “a quiet way to defund the police” and a “radical activist agenda” accusing the school district of making this plan without consulting him. He also posted a short screed to his Facebook page:
School cops are one of the ambient policing services often provided by sheriffs’ offices, some of whom get the funds from school districts or the county to pay for school-specific patrols. There are no specific numbers on how many sheriff's’ offices provide SROs, but my anecdotal evidence suggests that many do or they do so in conjunction with other local agencies (as Palm Springs does). The National Association of School Resource Officers (basically a special-interest group that promotes and trains SROs) estimated that 30% of schools have SROs (most are high schools). But, of course, there’s no official government agency that tracks these things nor are there standard requirements for SROs — though most of the time, they have some sort of training standard similar to a deputy.
Riverside Sheriff Bianco appears to be using the school year as a moment to slam the “defund” movement — of which he is no fan — and distract his community from the fact that he is accused of misspending almost $5 million in COVID funds. From the media I could find, it looks like the leaders of Palm Springs schools took into considering the problems that SROs cause when they made what sounds like a deliberate decision after polling parents, teachers, staff, and a handful of students. (There was, after all, a Powerpoint.) Earlier this year, one SRO assigned to Palm Springs schools was arrested for domestic terrorism – he was a Qanon adherent and part of a Jan 6 right-wing militia. (He was not employed by Riverside Sheriff’s Office.)
The main argument against SROs is that they contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline by criminalizing behavior that is common in schools, like disrupting class, and leading to a cascade of collateral consequences impacting everything from housing to immigration status. The stats are fairly overwhelming. Black, Latinx, and Native American students are disproportionately more likely to be targeted by law enforcement and arrested, which tracks incarceration rates. In addition, students with disabilities are disproportionately targeted by SROs, meaning they are also disproportionately arrested. (To add: Black students are also much more likely to report harassment and bullying, and SROs do not appear to change this dynamic.) There is also ample evidence that SROs exacerbate racial trauma and create stress for students, which negatively impacts learning.
Even in the mundane ways in which SROs are deployed – as the law enforcement arm of school administration – their presence seems to do more for law enforcement legitimacy than for child welfare. This can lead to the schools becoming like jails, where students are targeted and surveilled for suspicious activity, rather than a safe space for learning. At the same time, these jail-like conditions do not provide any protections for the young people who are students because they have no resource to parents or other adults. For example, in some cases, when an alleged crime has been committed on- or off-campus, SROs may work with other school officials to target “problem kids” and pull them in for interrogation on school property. This is very disturbing to me because kids who have been pulled aside at school (into a principal’s office, for example) are unlikely to refuse since school authorities exercise a parental-type control over students, by design. Yet, what they say in these interviews is used against them without an attorney present. Such informal interviews are treated as a law enforcement interrogation (including confessions); their statements are often used to show probable cause, and, in some cases, SROs either make custodial arrests or call other officers to do so. In one situation I was in, an SRO held an informal “line up” so that a witness could identify the perpetrators of a fight that took place off-campus. (Of course, these students were Black and Latinx.)
Desert Springs school officials cited these exact problems when they said they were eliminating SROs, arguing that the police emphasized “law enforcement” over other functions (like counseling).
There have also been many examples of SROs attacking and arresting young children, kindergarteners even, taking them into custody, and using restraints, often kids who have special needs. In Florida, five- and six-year-old kindergarteners have been arrested and restrained with zip-ties. In many of these cases, these were young children who were acting out. One young girl has sleep apnea (which accounted for her having a tantrum in school) and the horrific video shows her crying as the officer pulls her into the police car. It’s horrible.
In addition, SROs often criminalize kid behavior, like a middle school kid arrested and handcuffed for fake burps. Thanks to qualified immunity, there’s no recourse against officers who use excessive force, as seen in the video of an SRO in South Carolina flipping a desk and throwing a high school girl across the room before dragging her out of the room – she was allegedly not paying attention in class. (In this case, the SRO was employed by the sheriff’s office, who defended the deputy’s actions and said the teacher and school officials “had no trouble with the physical part.”) The classmate Niya Kenny who recorded the assault was also arrested, taken to jail, and charged with a crime. She ended up dropping out of high school and getting a GED because of the stress of the incident. (Kenny came forward to the press, it seems, of her own accord. The other student wasn’t named so far as I could see, presumably, because she didn’t want to be.)
The defenders of SROs say that it prevents crime – wholly unproven. The most common example is preventing school shootings, and, unfortunately, there’s no evidence SROs can do so. During the 2018 Parkland shooting, for example, the SRO, employed by the Broward County sheriff, actually hid and was fired for neglect of duty; then reinstated. (This officer has received a lot of online harassment for his actions, and I have no desire to pile on.) The point is that SROs can’t really respond to active shooter incidents, and there are much better and evidence-based ways to avoid school shootings, like more counselors, getting to know students better, gun control, etc. (Never mind the “active shooter trainings” that go too far.)
The alternative argument is that SROs provide a “good example” for kids to see a friendly cop around. (When I was in high school, we called our SRO “Officer Friendly” because he smiled too much.) Sheriffs’ offices and police agencies say that they are training SROs to be “restorative” and to act as guidance counselors and role models. But then why not hire actual guidance counselors? Or spend that money on teachers who can also be role models?
I have a theory.
At the end of the day, SROs are really another function of the “rent-a-cop” problem in sheriff offices and police departments. Schools pay for SROs out of their budget, and the law enforcement agency gets to hire someone without impacting their own budget — county inside baseball. Whatever the training or experience of SROs – even assuming lots of SROs are perfectly fine – agencies taking the money are not impartial deciders. Media (I think the Desert Sun’s coverage of the SRO squabble is biased towards law enforcement) tends to ignore the capitalist functions of public policing, forgetting that the public sector basically works like the private one when it comes to policing services. It’s easy to blame the private sector, but, honestly, sheriffs’ offices are the same way
Screen shot from a “cute” video of Tennessee SROs exiting a bus to the tune of Bad Boys.
1) The San Francisco Deputy Union posted a long Facebook rant about how deputies will quit if they are required to comply with city agency vaccination mandates.
2) The Albany County (New York) sheriff says he will investigate accusations “of a sexual nature” against Andrew Cuomo.
3) The Pasquotank County (North Carolina) NAACP formally asked the county to create a civilian review board for the sheriff’s office. 100 days ago, sheriff’s deputies shot and killed Andrew Brown Jr. County leaders indicate they will not do so. This is a common interpretation of the constitutional nature of the sheriff’s office, and I think it’s incorrect. There’s no reason why a state can’t legislate oversight of county law enforcement, elected or not. State sheriff associations tend to lobby heavily against such bills, however…