On one side of St. Paul this spring, a veteran school-based police officer was honored for his rapport with students and calming presence at Johnson High School. Across town at Central High School a week later, students demonstrated against a white officer who had pinned a black teen to the ground and arrested him for trespassing.
Those two very different takes on school resource officers (SROs) have prompted a new round of discussions in St. Paul and Minneapolis about cops in schools. Supporters argue that SROs help protect students and staff members and that they can reduce criminal activity and violence. Opponents say a police presence has a negative impact by criminalizing minor offenses and compromising students’ civil rights.
Our view is that when well-trained and used properly, SROs are an important part of the school staff team. But their effectiveness hinges on having more positive interactions with students than negative ones. As many have said during student and community conversations, SROs should be more counselor, adviser and mentor to students — and less harsh enforcer.
In other cities, there have been high-profile examples of cases in which the actions of SROs have been questioned. Last fall, for example, a South Carolina police officer was captured on video grabbing a girl by the neck as she sat at her desk, then dragging and throwing her across the floor.
Video of the 16-year-old’s arrest at Central led to outrage on social media. The teen, a former student at the school, was seen pinned on his stomach by an officer and could be heard insisting that he was there only to visit a teacher. But police said the officer’s actions were justified. They said school staff members had asked for the officer’s help after the teen was at the school for about an hour without permission, refused requests to leave and shoved the officer.
Some national experts on school discipline and students with disabilities say SROs should understand that they are not there to handle the most routine discipline problems. Experts recommend that SROs get to know students and learn about potential criminal activities to keep schools safe from threats. And they should learn de-escalation techniques specific to children and teenagers. Some situations call for diversion to calm a situation — not direct commands for compliance. Training also should help SROs recognize kids with disabilities or mental illness issues.
Only 12 states have laws that specify training requirements for SROs. And, according to an Atlantic magazine report, those laws are inconsistent. Some states mandate training and responses to an active shooter. Only a few call for training on dealing specifically with children and teens. Minnesota has no requirements.
The Minneapolis School District pays $1.2 million for 16 SROs at secondary schools; St. Paul spends nearly $855,000 for nine officers.
To get the most from that investment, the officers must be well-trained, work well with students and have the right temperament for the job. The community conversations about SROs that are underway in both St. Paul and Minneapolis can be constructive. With input from students, parents, police, school staff and other community members, the districts and individual schools can discuss how SROs can be most effective.