Oh shit!” cries a voice from nowhere as the shaky cell phone footage begins. A split second later, a young African-American girl in a pink shirt rises above her classmates before she’s thrown like a rag doll to the floor. She looks dazed, maybe momentarily unconscious. The police officer who threw her pulls her up by one arm and walks her out of the shot. It’s over in less than a minute.
Within hours, this footage of Rolesville police officer Ruben De Los Santos, who has been the school resource officer in Rolesville High for four years, and fifteen-year-old Jasmine Darwin made the rounds on social media last Tuesday. Jasmine and her family soon retained a lawyer, who told media outlets that Jasmine had a concussion. Following the incidentwhich was preceded by a fight between Jasmine’s sister and another studentDe Los Santos was placed on paid administrative leave, and the Wake County Public Schools System said it would review its agreement with the county’s police departments to provide school resource officers, which is set to expire this year.
Last Tuesday’s incident wasn’t the first time a Wake County school has come under fire after actions taken by SROs. In 2013, for example, Enloe High School made national headlines when seven students and a parent were arrested by an SRO after a water balloon fight at the end of the school year, an incident characterized as a senior prank.
This and other high-profile incidents led to changes in the memorandum of understanding between Wake schools and local police departments. Whereas before, the role of SROs was ill-defined, now the agreement makes clear that disciplinary issues are the purview of school administrators. In addition, the school system instructed the agencies to report data on student referrals to the criminal justice system.
When his organization started working with Wake schools in 2009, says Jon Powell, director of Campbell Law School’s Juvenile Justice Project and Restorative Justice Clinic, which helps divert students from the court system, “It was kind of a double whammy, where the schools were long-term suspending [students] and officers were referring them to the court.”
That’s still happening. From July 2014 through June 2015, SROs made 850 referrals to the court system, 48 percent of which were referred to adult court (in North Carolina, unlike every other state, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds are automatically treated as adults). Twenty-three of these were Rolesville students; sixteen of them were sent to adult court. Of those twenty-three, nineteen were African American.
This is a common theme.
In 2014, a complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of eight African-American students (seven of whom had a disability) saying that the WCPSS’s “over-reliance on unregulated school policing practices” leads to “routine violation of students’ educational and constitutional rights.”
After Tuesday’s incident, a coalition led by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which had complained to the Department of Education in 2010 about disparities in suspensions and court referrals for African-American students, sent another letter to the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights reporting that, in the 2015–16 school year, African-American students made up 24 percent of Wake students but 73 percent of school-based referrals to juvenile court.
“The WCPSS’ pattern and practice of discriminating on the basis of race in school discipline has already been well-established beyond a preponderance of the evidence,” the letter reads.
According to the WCPSS, there are sixty-four SROs in the county; the Rolesville Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office are two of eleven police forces, including those in Raleigh and Cary, enrolled in an agreement with the WCPSS to place officers in schools. Part of that agreement mandates a forty-hour SRO training course, as well as crisis-intervention training. But Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, an organization that trains SROs all over the country, says that North Carolina is one of the few states that doesn’t use the NASRO for its training.
“In the last fifteen months, there have been five high-profile instances similar to this case,” Canady says. “In every single one of those, the officer hasn’t taken our training, been a member, or attended a conference.”
Not a lot of data exists on SRO programsa 2009 study on one Tennessee district found that schools with SROs had fewer assault and weapons arrests but also saw a “troubling” spike in arrests for disorderly conductbut there are plenty of recommendations for potential reforms to make the system more equitable for minority students. Rukiya Dillahunt, a retired teacher and education justice advocate, says schools need more guidance counselors and social workers to help find the root cause of behavior problems. Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison thinks the WCPSS, the thirteenth-largest school district in the United States, should have its own police force.
Powell has another idea. “I really wish Wake would experiment with taking officers out of the school and evaluate the same kind of data with officers out of schools,” he says. “I think we might see a reduction in arrests and out-of-school suspensions.” Those referrals, he points out, can lead to criminal records that ruin students’ lives.
But this solution begets new problems; namely, who’s going to deal with kids who get out of control?
“We always try to de-escalate it, but as far as getting into a physical alteration, we would never encourage teachers to put hands on students,” says Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. Jewell says that in “most school environments, there’s a positive relationship between SROs and students and teachers.” He thinks the officers provide a net benefit to schools.
Harrison agrees. “With the atmosphere like it is, we probably need some officers in school, unfortunately,” he says.
But he notes that if school officials want to avoid damaging a student’s record permanently, they should think about whether or not an incident requires police involvement. “Once you call us, once we start an investigation, what are we gonna do? It’s a matter of people understanding that if they call us, we gotta do our job.”
Even so, Powell says, he would prefer that administrators, rather than law enforcement, deal with fights, utilizing tools like in-school suspension rather than the legal system.
“We instituted this huge, all-encompassing policy as a response [to the Columbine High School massacre in 1999]. That’s usually not good policy,” Powell says. “A lot of kid behaviors have just turned into crime because we have law enforcement working in schools and they’re trained to arrest.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “Deletable Resources”