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The Changing Role Of Police In American Classrooms


Let's spend some time now on the video of that confrontation between a South Carolina high school student and a school resource officer. That officer was fired this week, but not before those images sparked a national conversation about the role of police in schools. While many see a police presence as necessary, others are starting to question whether law-enforcement officers are the right people to address classroom misconduct. Susan Ferriss has reported extensively on this issue for the Center for Public Integrity, and she is with us now. Welcome, thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: What are the concerns that people are starting to raise about this routine police presence in the schools?

FERRISS: Well, I started out looking at this in Los Angeles, and police were organizing stings around high schools to catch kids as they were arriving late to school. And then the kids would get tickets for daytime curfew violations. They'd have to miss school to go into court with their parents, and actually judges began to get concerned about this. And they said, why are all these kids coming in here?

MARTIN: Well, you found some striking distinctions in terms of race, gender and disability in documenting which students tended to be referred to law enforcement. Could you tell us what you found?

FERRISS: Sure, that's right. What we found was that black kids and students with disabilities were more likely to be referred to law enforcement. In Virginia, 11-year-old Kayleb Moon-Robinson - he's autistic - walked out of class without permission. The school principal sent the school resource officer to get him. Kayleb didn't want to go into the office. The school resource officer grabbed Kayleb, and Kayleb reacted, pushing away at the officer. He ended up slammed to the ground, handcuffed for three hours and charged with felony assault on a police officer.

MARTIN: And they knew he had special needs and they knew he had - he was on the autism spectrum. This was not a surprise to anybody.

FERRISS: The staff did. It's unclear if the police officer did. He said he didn't.

MARTIN: Are there any federal guidelines on this?

FERRISS: Really, across the country there's a patchwork of policies for police operating in schools. And a lot of judges and psychologists and civil rights attorneys are urging schools and districts to come up with policies for how police should operate in schools. Denver schools have worked on protocols for when police should get involved. Are there steps that the kids have gone through, where they've gotten warnings and received a chance to turn to counseling? In Virginia now, the state has launched a project to offer retraining to all school resource officers.

MARTIN: What would you say though to those who argue that just as that South Carolina sheriff said the other day in his press conference where he announced that he was, in fact, firing the officer who was implicated in this incident that some of the teachers feel that some of these kids, in fact, are physically threatening and that they are not trained for this, and that that's why there needs to be this kind of presence in the schools. What would you say to that?

FERRISS: Well, I can tell you what the Department of Education leaders say and leaders in the teacher ranks across the country - that they need support. They need to learn methods of counseling kids or putting families in touch with the appropriate type of counselors in the community that can help them. I do think that people are saying from the beginning though let's sort out what truly is a crime that needs to be sent to law enforcement and what really needs to be kept in the school and dealt with by principals, counselors and other staff.

MARTIN: Susan Ferriss is a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity. She's been reporting on this issue, and she was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C., studios. Susan Ferriss, thank you so much for speaking with us.

FERRISS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.