According to the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), a school resource officer is a law enforcement officer who is deployed by an employing police department or agency in a community-oriented policing role to work in collaboration with schools. Historically, SROs emerged in public schools starting in the 1950s in Michigan as an experimental program to improve a local community policing initiative. Today, NASRO estimates that approximately 20% of all K–12 schools nationwide—both public and private—are served by SROs. At times, SROs encounter disruptive and dangerous situations in the schools where they are assigned. As a result, the responsibilities of today’s SROs are often challenging, stressful, and sometimes unpredictable. Given the importance and complexities of their duties and responsibilities, SROs need specialized training associated with handling students in the unique school environments they are assigned. Some contend that the contemporary SRO reflects a new type of public servant who is expected to perform the duties of law enforcement officer, law-related counselor, and law-related education teacher.
Following media reports involving SROs and harsh discipline policies for students with disabilities and other students groups who have been historically marginalized, there have been increasing calls for reform, including demands for the removal of police from K–12 schools and replacing them with school counselors, social workers, psychologists, and nurses that help support and improve student mental health. Some of these reports have led to new lawsuits. Interestingly, many who support the presence of SROs in schools do so based on the perception that they increase school safety—despite little evidence that school policing makes schools safer.
There is also growing evidence to suggest that the closure of the nation’s schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted an estimated 55 million children and teens, has actually exacerbated mental health challenges, especially for students with disabilities. While it is well documented that many school-aged children and teens in the U.S. experience some sort of mental health challenge, there is also growing evidence that targeted student mental health training of SROs enhances their role as counselor and mentor in schools, as well as allows them to better recognize and respond to a variety of student mental health concerns.
Increasing Legal Cases Involving Excessive Force by SROs
Data collected by the U.S. Department of Education indicate students with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to disproportionate rates of law enforcement referrals and arrests by police in schools compared to the general student population. For example, a growing number of national media reports have captured disturbing video footage of SROs using physical force on students with moderate to severe disabilities. In addition to handcuffing students, videos have gone viral showing SROs punching and kicking students, as well as shocking and assaulting students with tasers and mace.
Over the past several years, there have been a mounting number of lawsuits involving the alleged use of excessive force by SROs against students with disabilities. In one high-profile case, a Kentucky SRO working at an elementary school was videotaped handcuffing an elementary student with ADHD after the 8-year-old boy experienced a severe temper tantrum and refused to sit down when asked by the SRO. On the video, the young child can be heard crying and saying, “Ow, that hurts” with the SRO responding to the child, “You can do what we’ve asked you or you can suffer the consequences.” Shortly after the video went viral, a 9-year-old girl alleged that the same SRO made her kneel on the floor for approximately 30 minutes while she remained handcuffed. The families of both students filed a lawsuit alleging the SRO used excessive force by handcuffing the students and violated their constitutional rights. The federal district court found that the SRO’s manner of handcuffing involved excessive force and was an unconstitutional seizure.
In a more recent case, the mother of an elementary school student filed suit against a police officer that also provided services as an SRO, and the city that employed the officer, after her child was handcuffed in school. The student, who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, was an approximately 4-foot, 85-pound 10-year-old student at a public elementary school. The special education teacher asked the SRO for assistance with the student, who had committed “some minor infractions.” In its ruling, the federal district court in Texas stated, “There is no clearly established law that a police officer may not handcuff or otherwise use his body weight to restrain a student, including a student who has special needs and is repeatedly disruptive, combative, noncompliant, and resisting the officer’s commands.” The court held that the SRO had not engaged in excessive force and that he was entitled to qualified immunity.
Takeaways for Improving SRO-School Partnerships Impacting Students With Disabilities
As parents, educators, and students envision the future reopening of schools, the early evidence suggests that students will have increased mental health challenges resulting from the numerous impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. SROs will benefit from additional targeted and specialized training to handle these magnified student mental health concerns, especially involving our most vulnerable student populations. For instance, SROs need to be more aware of students with disabilities in the schools to which they are assigned, especially if these students have specific behavioral intervention plans or accommodations that inform practices to both deescalate conflict as well as replace or delay the use of physical restraint. SROs who are trained to better understand student mental health issues can make more appropriate referrals to other mental health providers and maintain a focus of mentally healthy students that remain in school and ultimately out of the juvenile and criminal justice system.
Kevin P. Brady is a professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, AR. He is also director of the UCEA Center for the Study of Leadership and the Law. Traci Ballard specializes in professional learning for principals and other school leaders. She serves as associate director of the Professional Development and Leadership Academy at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. Suzanne E. Eckes is a professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. She is a co-author of Principals Avoiding Lawsuits and a past president of the Education Law Association.
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