Erika D. Smith

Erika D. Smith: Time to rethink cops in schools

Crime scene tape.
Crime scene tape. Miami

The sun had already set by the time Lt. Drew Wyant, dressed in his Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department uniform, took the microphone in the gym of Florin High School last Thursday. Seated in front of him were about 100 parents, filling neat rows of metal chairs. Around them, TV news cameras.

Everyone wanted to hear what was being done to ensure that a brawl like the one that had erupted in the school’s lunchroom earlier that week would never happen again, and it was Wyant’s turn to tell them.

Perhaps it was inevitable that he would veer toward the oddly defensive and apologetic.

“All we do is try to help,” he said of his fellow school resource officers, all also members of the Sheriff’s Department. “What we try to do is make it the safest place possible for kids to go to school.” As if to drive the point home, he added: “We’re trying to do the right thing. Yes, things happen. Yes, people sometimes do things they’re not supposed to do. But I guarantee you, these SROs, they are hand-chosen.”

Most parents nodded and applauded.

After all, this was Florin High School. The place where just days earlier, a school resource officer had calmly and appropriately intervened to defuse a fight that had gotten so out of control that a student picked up and then body-slammed the principal. A video of the incident went viral.

It was not Spring Valley High School in South Carolina, where an SRO cruelly flipped and then dragged a female student across a classroom for refusing to get up and walk to the principal’s office.

It also wasn’t U.S. Grant High School in Oklahoma City, where yet another SRO has been charged with assault and battery for punching a teenager in the face because he didn’t have a hall pass and ignored orders to go to the gym.

Last week was a bad week for school resource officers, and Wyant clearly knew it.

Sure, the parents at Florin want to know how they can get more security at the high school, but nationally, the conversation has gone another direction. People are asking, once again, why we need cops stationed in schools at all. And, if they have to be there, what role should they play in disciplining students?

These are good questions, ones that need to be asked, as school districts across the country continue to put armed officers in schools and enact tough – sometimes ridiculous – policies on student misconduct.

It’s a trend that, since the 1990s, has led to an increase in the number of students being arrested, often for minor offenses that, in an earlier era, might have warranted an in-school suspension or a detention. This is particularly troubling for young black males, who, studies show, are disproportionately targeted for discipline and often get caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline.

But completely getting rid of cops in schools isn’t the answer either. Not when real crimes are being committed.

In Sacramento County, for example, there were at least 235 instances of assault or battery on a school employee during the 2013-14 school year alone, according to the California Department of Education.

In the Florin High School melee, deputies arrested a 13-year-old and two 15-year-olds – two of them for battery on school employees, and one for threatening students and law enforcement. That needed to happen. Body-slamming anyone, much less a principal with gray hair, is completely unacceptable.

Instead, school districts should be aiming for middle ground, one that includes a strong policy that specifies exactly when SROs can intervene with students, and lots and lots of training on how officers can de-escalate tense situations. The murkier the policy and the skimpier the training, the greater the chance for problems.

Teachers and administrators shouldn’t be calling SROs into classrooms to deal with disruptive students. If at all possible, confrontation shouldn’t be the first exposure that kids have to law enforcement.

To the contrary, if the presence of SROs offers any clear benefit it is the potentially positive relationships they can build with students – something that’s clearly needed in an era dominated by wall-to-wall news coverage of police misconduct.

Wyant was right last Thursday when he called the school resource officers’ role at Elk Grove Unified School District an “opportunity.” The only question is how wisely that district and others will take advantage of it.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith