The viral video of a South Carolina School Resource Officer (SRO) dragging a female student out of a classroom chair raises as many questions about a failure of school administration as it raises questions about school officer tactics and best practices in school-based policing.
Three wrongs a disaster makes
“This situation was a no-win as soon as the officer walked in the room.” This observation was repeated over and over in my discussions with veteran school safety experts, SROs, educators and police administrators about an encounter in which Richland County (SC) Sheriff’s Department deputy and SRO, when called to a classroom at Spring Valley High School to remove a non-compliant female student, escalated into a forceful physical confrontation.
“Who is responsible?,” is a common question. People seek to find someone to blame. We look for a victim, a villain and a vindicator.
Three wrongs appear to have contributed to a disastrous outcome:
- The student appears to have been wrong three times. She failed to follow the classroom rules and directions of the teacher. She failed to follow a reasonable request of a school administrator. And she failed to follow the reasonable verbal requests of a police officer. These wrongs do not justify an excessive use of force, but they must be acknowledged as a significant part of this scenario.
- The school administration appears wrong in thrusting a police officer into a school disciplinary matter. One of the most acknowledged best practices of SRO programs is the separation of administrative school disciplinary roles from the roles of a school-based police officer. In this case, the school administration pulled the school’s SRO into a matter involving what has consistently been reported as a non-compliant student. Violent, threatening students fall within the realm of SRO interventions. Managing non-compliant students who are non-threatening is the job of the school administrator. Questions also loom as to whether the administrator could have engaged numerous other options, such as those discussed below, without engaging the officer.
- The SRO appears wrong in taking the lead in a school administrative matter, did not appear to explore other options for intervention, and according to his department’s investigation, was wrong in an excessive amount of force used in the encounter.
These “three wrongs” appear to have had a cumulative downhill effect. In short, this “no win” situation became worse and worse as the scenario unfolded.
Overly aggressive school police officers are often a sign of a weak school administration
When we see School Resource Officers (SROs) involved in an arrest and physical altercation with a student in a classroom, it often points to failures of school administration to take the lead in handling school discipline instead of sending their SRO to do the job of a principal.
The first step in intervention in a school disciplinary matter should be by the school disciplinarian – the principal or assistant principal, not the police officer. If a situation becomes violent, a student is threatening and/or a student has weapon, the officer can and should intervene when needed. But caution must be taken not to put the officer in a position where he or she will be forced to turn to an arrest as a solution to a non-violent disciplinary matter that an administrator should have handled in the first place.
We have a saying when working with principals, superintendents and School Resource Officers on these issues: When you see an overly aggressive school police officer, it is often a sign of a weak school administrator. The primary responsibility for non-compliant student discipline rests with the principal and assistant principal, not the police.
Missed opportunities to engage intervention options
The Spring Valley High School confrontation suggests that there were a number of potential missed opportunities for other interventions including:
- Administrators and other school staff handling the scenario without calling in a police officer. If needed, could another principal be called in to assist? A counselor or other staff member who has a relationship with the non-compliant student?
- Clearing the room – Taking away the audience can quickly change the context and climate of a disciplinary matter and the demeanor of a non-compliant student. Veteran school safety experts repeatedly cited “clearing the room” as a first step by school administrators, to take away the student’s audience to which she had to perform. It also takes the pressure off of intervening adults to “save face” as much as it does the student.
- Crisis intervention teams – Palm Beach County School District shared that their system trains a team of school staff at each school to serve as crisis intervention specialists. They can be deployed to assist with verbal de-escalation and non-violent crisis intervention situations.
- Calling parents – Our colleague and friend, veteran school police expert Curt Lavarello, points to numerous situations in his career where he called parents right away to pull them into the situation. It may not work in all cases, but this simple strategy could be one additional tool that might work for some defiant students.
Providing classroom teachers with classroom management and deescalation training, intervention training for school staff, clear agreements between school and police officials on the roles of SROs, and numerous other strategies can help school leaders prevent or better respond to such challenging scenarios without quickly resorting to thrusting school police into school discipline.
Politicizing of school safety only worsens the situation
An ugly situation like that at Spring Valley High School only intensifies as school safety becomes more and more politicized throughout the United States. This situation quickly escalated to suspended students, a fired SRO, a student walkout protest in support of the officer, a federal civil rights investigation, allegations of racial motivations, and exploitation of the incident by special interest groups who advocated for the removal of all police from schools, etc.
A few specific observations in this case include:
- The deputy appeared to have been “fired” well before the internal investigation began. The Sheriff made some eyebrow-raising comments during a press conference in which he first said he would wait for the results of the internal investigation, yet also told reporters they could “read between the lines” on where he was going. This begs the question of whether elected officials and top administrators will increasingly make decisions based upon political and media pressures, or upon an objective review and application of the facts and departmental policies. The firing of the officer may indeed fit all departmental procedures, but if the firing was truly determined before the investigation was finished, it leaves other other officers fearing not what may be captured on video, but how the political persons above them will exploit situations for their own political gain and survival before an independent investigation based upon facts is conducted.
- Will discussions and actions on controversial altercations involving SROs, and police in general, be first guided by questions of race or first by best practices? I have had several persons of diverse racial backgrounds ask questions such as, “Would there have been a civil rights investigation immediately requested by the Sheriff if the officer was black?,” or “Would the feds be called in if it had been a white officer and white student?” Many people feel the answer to both questions is, “No.” Don’t get me wrong. Race and bias discussions are sorely needed in school policing and education in general. Take all actions when the facts warrant doing so. But do it for the right reasons, not for your political survival.
- Civil rights special interest groups couldn’t wait to go on national TV to exploit the Spring Valley High School incident to further their political agendas of advocating for the removal of all police from schools. It’s disappointing that these same groups are silent in the cases where students assault school police officers. Broad-brush strokes against all school police because of individual incidents are no more fair than broad-brush strokes against all students based upon the crimes of individual students against school officers and staff.
Training on principal-police partnerships based upon best practices: Derailing the school-to-prison pipeline while preserving school police programs
School Resource Officers (SROs) are a great asset in school safety. We support the SRO concept when it is operating properly and consistent with best practices. Too often we increasingly hear from superintendents and school boards concerns about their SRO operation.
As with curriculum, or any program in the school environment, periodic evaluation is critical to success. However, this evaluation can, at times, be difficult for school safety leaders. School administrators and police often duck and dodge the tough issues regarding the intersection of their roles, conflicting mindsets, and tough questions about race, bias and viewpoints on managing student behaviors.
Our workshop on Policing the Schools: Strategies for Effective Principal-Police Partnerships is one step in identifying ways to keep SRO programs on track and consistent with best practices to avoid high-profile scenarios like the Spring Valley High School altercation. Our multi-disciplinary team of school security and police experts, school administrators, school psychologists, and communications specialists have been training and consulting with school districts and school-based police on better clarifying the roles of SROs and principals. An experienced independent team of school safety professionals can nudge conversations and help focus issues that may never be addressed without skilled support.
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