The increase of school-based offense referrals has spiked suspensions and jail time for many students, and the presence of law enforcement in schools could be the problem for many students of color and students with disabilities.
In a 2015 School Resource Officer Census for North Carolina, the typical SRO is a 42-year-old white male “with a 57 percent chance of having formal education higher than a high school degree.” Most SRO’s are sworn law enforcement and are employed by a county’s sherriff’s office.
The census also reported that more than 82 percent have completed basic SRO training provided by the North Carolina Justice Academy, but less than 40 percent received advanced training of any kind.
LaToya Powell currently works for the North Carolina Office of the Administrative Courts, and has previously worked as a juvenile justice educator at the University of North Carolina School of Government.
She said that schools are trying hard to do the right thing, “but shortage of funds and support staff means counselors and therapists are being replaced with resource officers.”
Most high schools and middle schools in the state have at least one resource officer on their campus with approximately 1,000 SROs employed in North Carolina, and while there has been a significant decline of complaints and an overall decrease in delinquency rates, Powell said “the number of referrals to the juvenile justice system are still rising rapidly.”
Eric Zogry, works with the North Carolina Office of the Juvenile Defender, and started his public defending career in 1999 by exclusively practicing juvenile delinquency.
“They were supposed to ensure positive interactions with youth and law enforcement; to build trust and partnership to keep communities safe, and to prevent an increase in youth violence,” Zogry said.
The problem was that the officers were put in charge of disciplinary action, and “when you put law enforcement in schools, they’re going to start arresting kids,” said Zogry, also emphasizing that 44 percent of all school-based offense referrals come from SROs.
This continued the distrust between police and minority communities, reversing the SRO’s intended purpose. Policing normal teenage behaviors landed kids detentions, suspensions, and arrests.
“The use of law enforcement in schools has been a misdiagnosis and a poor solution to the problem,” said Zogry, “and there has been a significant focus on youth of color, youth with disabilities, LGBTQ youth, and students in rural and impoverished areas.”
When thinking back to his time as a defender, Zogry recalled his workload during the summer months.
“The first thing you notice,” he said, “was that in the summer there was very little court because school had ended, no one was there to send these kids to court for ridiculous reasons.”
He also mentioned an instance with one of his former colleagues, where it was discovered that “detention center populations tended to rise during end of grade testing because it was thought that the kids who were lower achievers would impact school performance rankings.”
This was an example of yet another injustice that minors in this system face when incarceration seems to be the best solution for schools and their problems, particularly when helping kids with disabilities and learning impairments.
Zogry emphasized the need for better diversionary tactics and mental health training programs for officers. Training was one of the largest issues Powell emphasized as steps towards progress with resolving issues of the pipeline.
“Proper training is an important tool schools could be using,” said Powell. “Some officers are just placed there and have no idea about how to deal with children.”
In North Carolina, 57 percent of SROs have received Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training to better understand mental and emotional disabilities and to find alternative diversions to the juvenile and adult justice systems for these students. That leaves nearly half without.
And, according to the 2015 SRO Census, only 14 percent have completed Mental Health First Aid for Youth for identifying and understanding the different emotional and mental disorders associated with youths.
To alleviate the funnel into the school-to-prison pipeline, and to monitor the power of the school resource officers, recommendations were made in the Raise the Age Act to create School Justice Partnerships.
These partnerships, as described by both Powell and Zogry who worked on the policy, would create a relationship between stakeholders to develop strategies to more appropriately deal with conduct without pushing the kids out of school and into the court.
“It would develop an agreement that places guidelines for school discipline and define the roles of the resource officers, and places limits on their abilities,” said Powell. It would emphasize the need for diversionary programs to ultimately help kids avoid ending up in the system and the pipeline.