Obama Administration Urges Schools to Clarify Roles of School Resource Officers

Image courtesy of ClipNYC.com.

Image courtesy of ClipNYC.com.

The Obama Administration, in conjunction with the Departments of Education and Justice, is encouraging schools across the nation to explicitly define the role of school resource officers and campus police.

The departments sent letters to schools and universities Wednesday with suggestions on how to ensure school-based officers are being used appropriately.

According to the Washington Post, the move comes in response to a number of violent encounters between students and school-based police officers — like the one at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina where a teenage girl was forcibly yanked from her desk and dragged across the classroom by a cop. Similar incidents have some people questioning whether school resource officers are keeping kids safe or just arresting them for small disciplinary infractions.

“As educators, we are all bound by a sacred trust to protect the well-being, safety, and extraordinary potential of the children, youth and the young adults within the communities we serve,” U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. wrote in a memo Thursday. “School resource officers can be valuable assets in creating a positive school environment and keeping kids safe. But we must ensure that school discipline is being handled by trained educators, not by law enforcement officers.

“At the college level, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing has important recommendations that can help campus and local law enforcement both keep students safe and safeguard students’ civil rights,” King added.

In the letters addressed to schools nationwide, the departments advised school districts and colleges to clarify their expectations of school-based officers by signing memorandums of understanding with local police agencies. The Washington Post reports that the MOUs should require training for officers who work in schools and should explicitly state that officers are not there to administer day-to-day discipline or carry out de facto policing.

The letters were accompanied by additional resources and documents further outlining what should be included in the MOUs. The agreements should require the public reporting of in-school law enforcement activity, ways for schools to report and/or replace a resource officer and an effective process to revisit or amend said MOU, according to the publication.

Though law enforcement agencies aren’t required to comply with the governmental suggestions, they’ll have to if they want to continue receiving federal grants that finance the hiring of 100-150 school-based police officers annually, according to Ron L. Davis, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

The move to clearly define the role of school resource officers is part of the Obama Administration’s effort to step back from zero-tolerance disciplinary tactics carried out in schools nationwide. Oftentimes, it’s students of color who are punished under these strict rules.

According to the Huffington Post, a group of civil rights organizations filed a complaint with the DOE two weeks ago alleging that Black students were being disproportionately targeted by police officers in local Richmond, Virginia schools. The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a similar complaint the following week on behalf of students in Pinellas, Florida who were the victims of biased police tactics.

It’s hoped that these new resources and suggestions will help combat some of the issues faced by students and school resource officers.

“The goal here is to give people a resource to do better,” King said.

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