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School resource officers face renewed scrutiny in Charleston among experts and activists

Wanting Them Out

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A South Carolina group has started a petition calling for the removal of law enforcement officers from Charleston County schools amid national calls to reevaluate the role of policing.

Carolina Youth Action Project, a community and political education group, launched the petition July 7 as protests swelled nationwide since late May over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. The protests have called for defunding the police and removing school resource officers from schools.

As of Monday, more than 1,100 have signed the change.org petition.

"Consistent research on school policing has spoken loud and clear: The presence of police in schools does not translate to a safe environment for students, especially for black, brown, queer and trans students and students with disabilities," the petition states.

Researchers say they don't disagree. University of South Carolina professor Josh Gupta-Kagan said it's difficult to find empirical evidence that SROs make schools safer and studies suggest that SROs have led to increased arrests for "relatively petty offenses."

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"When people talk about the school-to-prison, that's the concern, that a fight in the school cafeteria suddenly becomes a simple assault charge," he said. "If your 15 year old was caught stealing someone else's cell phone, would you want them brought to a police officer or would you want them brought to the assistant principal?"

A 2018 study from the Brookings Institution found that, in middle schools, more investment in school police officers doesn't necessarily lead to safer schools or students feeling safer. The report also found evidence for racial disparities in arrests made by SROs and pointed to non-school factors as one of the primary reasons students misbehave.

Statistics from the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice show far more black students are sent to the Charleston County Juvenile Detention Center than white students. In 2018, the most recent data available, 250 black students were detained in the county jail, while only 75 white students were detained.

The role of SROs

The primary role of SROs is to provide a safe environment for students as part of the county's community policing efforts, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said. SROs are often provided by local law enforcement. The Sheriff's Office provides SROs to 21 out of 80 schools in the Charleston County School District.

"We felt like if we could put SROs in the schools and they were chosen pretty carefully, that they could build relationships with the schools and might follow through and might affect how they view the police officers the older they got," he said.

Resource officers have been in Charleston County schools since the mid-1980s, according to Cannon.

After high-profile school shootings, including the Parkland shooting in 2018, some states quickly moved to add officers in schools to protect students from gun violence. In 2019, the state funded 205 new resource officers for public schools across S.C.

But Dave Morris, a College of Charleston professor of sociology who studies the efficacy of SROs, said police in schools are "at best a non-factor on violence and crime in schools."

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"(School resource officers) have the potential to increase student victimization ... The introduction of students to the criminal justice system for minor infractions, fighting, being disrespectful to teachers — you shouldn't be going to court for that," Morris said.

Cannon, when asked about SROs and the school-to-prison pipeline, pointed to violence in video games, television and other media. "We've seized homemade CDs here in Charleston that have rap music," he said, noting young people's minds are not fully developed until they are about 25.

"You've got young African-American males with the money and the guns and the drugs, and right over the shoulder is the young kid that's a younger brother or maybe lives next door in the project, or whatever the case might be, and you can't tell me that that doesn't, over time, affect young people."

Cannon said he does not believe the majority of parents want officers removed from schools. "As recent as two or three years ago, people were beating down our doors after the shooting in Florida to put SROs in schools," Cannon said.

A counter petition was also started last week, pushing back on the Carolina Youth Action Project's claims. That petition now has more signatures than the group's original call to remove SROs from schools.

Charleston school district officials said officers' roles go beyond keeping kids safe.

"We believe school resource officers are a critical part of the district's overall security plans to keep students and staff safe," said Andy Pruitt, Charleston County School District communications director. "We also believe that an important part of their role is to help create positive and lasting relationships between children and law enforcement agencies."

Charleston Police Department, which also provides school resource officers, declined to comment for this story.

Reexamining the role

Morris said administrators should ask about the larger impacts of SRO duties. "What the concern is about is school resource officers have become school personnel professionals when it comes to discipline, when it comes to counseling, when it comes to instruction sometimes," he said. "That's not their role and they're not trained to do that."

Gupta-Kagan and Morris said SROs could be useful in a limited capacity and not used for discipline. Morris supports removing SROs completely to "wipe the slate clean," then reintegrate them in a way that's appropriate. "I think it makes sense to have some sort of security measure," he said.

"If there's a particularly severe crime issue, particularly serious gang issue, then maybe there's a conversation to be had about the proper role of law enforcement [in schools]," said Gupta-Kagan. "But you've got to have clear lines to prevent law enforcement from creeping into matters that really ought to be school discipline."

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