Police in Schools? Only in Emergencies

The recent incident of police brutality in a South Carolina school makes clear that the trend of ever increasing police presence in our schools has gone too far. Last year, I settled a case of police brutality in a Sun Prairie, Wisconsin middle school, just before it went to trial. Both of these incidents illustrate exactly why police do not belong in school, other than in genuine emergencies.

SC police brutality

In both incidents, the students were not causing or threatening harm to anyone. Both students simply wanted to use their cell phones and failed to follow police orders not to do so. The result in both incidents was a violent use of force by the police officer simply because the children did not follow the police officer’s command.

Earlier this year the Center for Public Integrity produced eye-opening data revealing the number of school referrals to law enforcement on a state by state basis. The data should shock anyone who is concerned about the schools to prison pipeline. The worst state is Virginia which sends nearly 16 out of every 1000 students to law enforcement. Sadly, racial and disability disparities are also revealed. In Virginia, that rate jumps to over 25/1000 black students and over 33/1000 students with disabilities.

My own state of Wisconsin has the 7th highest rate sending over 10/1000 students to law enforcement, with similarly troubling racial and disability disparities. Wisconsin schools send 14/1000 black students to law enforcement and nearly 25/1000 students with disabilities are referred to law enforcement.

Due to this overuse of police in our schools, the National Disabilities Rights Network just issued its recommendations on school policing, earlier this week. Among the key recommendations are:

  • The role of School Resource Officers (SROs) should be limited to ensuring school safety in the manner expected of a sworn law enforcement officer. Local Education Agencies (LEAs) (school districts) should assess whether SROs working in their districts are being used to enforce non-violent school code violations, manage student behavior (including the behavior of students with disabilities who have behavior plans), and other non–law enforcement tasks. If so, they should remove SROs from the school environment or alter their role accordingly.
  • In any instance in which a SRO works in a school setting, the school districts should develop and publicize Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) with the relevant law enforcement agencies regarding the use of school based law enforcement. The purpose of the MOU is to make clear the role of the SRO in the school setting, and specifically to clarify that SROs may not be used enforce non-violent school code violations, manage student behavior (including the behavior of students with disabilities who have behavior plans), and other non– law enforcement tasks.
  • All law enforcement officers working in and around schools must know how to appropriately interact with individuals with disabilities.
  • All law enforcement officers working in and around schools must understand the developmental needs of children and youth, and how to interact with them successfully. This includes the need of all law enforcement officers to comply with Constitutional requirements in a manner that is developmentally appropriate for students of the age they will encounter in the course of their work.
  • State Education Agencies (SEAs) and LEAs should use reported data, including disaggregated data on school based arrests to guide school improvement plans and to highlight disparities (i.e. resources, discipline disparities). This data analysis should be used to ensure that LEAs are taking action to remedy disparities in school based arrests. Where they are not remedying disparities on their own, the federal government should enforce the law using the full extent of their authority.
  • All LEAs must report accurate data to the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) in a timely manner. The US Department of Education (ED) should hold non-compliant districts accountable, including but not limited to, withholding administrative funds to grantees, and lowering scores when non-compliant districts compete for new federal education competitive grants. Competition scores should be increased for fully compliant districts. ED should report to the public when a sanction has been levied against a district for failing to report as required, in order to improve confidence in the reporting system. This compliance must include reporting of school based arrests and referrals to law enforcement.
  • Require implicit bias training for schools and/or districts that are under consent decrees or that have significant disproportionality in discipline, referrals to juvenile justice, access to programs and/or resources.
  • Requiring SEAs with schools and districts that have high levels of exclusionary discipline, or disproportionality in rates of exclusionary discipline, to provide the following training/professional development to school staff and SROs, at a frequency based on a quarterly review of discipline/school removal data and law enforcement referral data.

    o IDEA (federal special education law) discipline policies and requirements
    o Crisis management
    o Data-driven, evidence-based prevention and responsive strategies (including such approaches as restorative justice and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports)
    o De-escalation strategies
    o Understanding and responding to the effects of trauma o Culturally responsive practices
    o Implicit bias

    Finally, school districts identified as having elevated school-based arrest rates remove SROs from the school environment as soon as possible.

    The bottom line is that police do not belong in schools to enforce school discipline policies. They should only be used in cases of violent emergencies.


    For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.


Which Students Overcome Suspensions?

While I have written a lot about the problems with zero tolerance policies in school fueling the school to prison pipeline, a recent analysis provides new insights into which students overcome the burdens imposed upon them when they are suspended from school.

According to the analysis  by the Brooking Institution, high school graduation rates are significantly lower for students who are suspended. This leads to lower income later in life as the “suspension penalty” carries into adulthood.

Reeves 102001

It is well documented that school discipline is disproportionally meted out on students of color, those with disabilities, and those who are low-income, which is a problem in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. But, as the Brookings analysis points out, economic success later in life for suspended students is impacted greatly by whether or not the student graduates from high school and obtains further education.

Reeves 102002

Reeves 102003

Not surprisingly, then, family income is directly related to whether or not a child is suspended.

Reeves 102004

The Brookings analysis also examines two other critical factors which help determine whether or not a child can overcome the burden of suspension. First, students who live with both biological parents through age 18 have a much better chance of overcoming the burden of suspension.

Reeves 102005

Finally, whether or not the student’s mother graduated from high school has a strong correlation to whether or not the student graduates. This correlation is particularly profound for students who are suspended.

Reeves 102006

Thus, while school discipline policies must continue to reduce the likelihood of suspension due to the long term problematic outcomes for suspended students, the larger picture of family stability and parental success must also be supported if we hope to stop the generational poverty which burdens our society.

For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Protecting the Environment at the Local Level

Twenty-three years ago, my wife and I were fortunate to find and purchase an incredible piece of property in Central Wisconsin, on Goose Lake, in Adams County. For many years, we focused on preserving the old oak forest, wetlands and farmland on our property. But, a few years ago, the Goose Lake Watershed District (GLWD) was formed, which has the authority to levy a small amount of taxes to use to care for and preserve the lake.

After attending the first 2 annual meetings, I was elected the Chair of the GLWD, as I recognized that preserving the diverse ecology of Goose Lake required working with my neighbors through this small government authority. We have done many good things together, including purchasing our own used weed harvester, improving the public boat landing and beach, and in 10 days, we will stock the lake with about 3000 young fish.

However, one dangerous eyesore remains. About 40 years ago, when a corner of the lake was developed with vacation homes, the developer placed ownership rights of a small island on every deed of the adjoining properties. The developer also built a wooden boardwalk and footbridge to the island. Unfortunately, these 20+ island owners have never been able to coordinate the upkeep of the bridge and so it has fallen into a dangerous state of disrepair.


For the past couple of years, the GLWD has been exploring many possibilities to deal with this dilapidated and dangerous bridge. We have stayed in regular communication with the island owners, sought legal advice, and held public meetings to make sure that all options can be thoughtfully considered. At our last Annual meeting, we decided to issue a request for proposals to remove the bridge and boardwalk.

We received a few proposals, but only 1 was within our budget. I have spent the past few weeks checking references. The GLWD will consider whether or not to engage in contract negotiations to remove the bridge and boardwalk at our meeting this coming Sunday. I am optimistic that we will move forward to remove the bridge and boardwalk this coming winter and in doing so, we will make our lake safer for the people who use  it and the diverse wildlife, such as Sandhill cranes, that nest nearby.

This is one of many reasons why small local government matters. In an era, when out state legislature and Congress seem to dominate government decision making, I am proud to be a key part in leading the Goose Lake Watershed District’s effort to preserve this diverse ecological paradise.


For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Department of Justice Makes Strong Disability Statement in School to Prison Pipeline Case

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) took the unusual step of submitting a Statement of Interest in a school to prison pipeline case in Kenton County, Kentucky. The case involves a school resource officer (SRO) in the Covington Independent School District, who is accused of handcuffing 2 students: 8 and 9 years old, behind their backs, and above their elbows, at the biceps. Both children have disabilities and the behavior for which they were handcuffed arose out of their disabilities.


Although the federal government is not taking sides in the lawsuit brought by the children’s parents, it took the unusual step of submitting a statement of interest, to make sure that the court understands that in addition to the normal way of analyzing excessive use of police force cases, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)  imposes additional requirements when police deal with people with disabilities.

Specifically, the DOJ informed the court that when encountering people with disabilities, the ADA requires police departments to:

  • “reasonably modify procedures, practices, and policies unless doing so would result in a fundamental alteration,” and
  • “create policies and administer those policies in a way that does not have the effect of discriminating against children with disabilities.”

The DOJ makes clear that,

This litigation implicates the rights of children in schools to be free from unconstitutional police seizures, the rights of children with disabilities to be free from disability-based discrimination, and the rights of children to be free from civil rights violations that lead to the cycle of harsh school discipline and law enforcement involvement known as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

In a very impressive statement, the DOJ informed the court that,

the United States has a strong interest in eliminating the school-to-prison pipeline, which has a disproportionate effect on students with disabilities and students of color.

As I have written previously, the DOJ has issued strong guidance seeking to eliminate the school to prison pipeline for at least the past 2 years.

In this particular case, these young children both had disabilities that impacted their behavior that the school district was well aware of and provided them with behavior intervention plans. However, the Sheriff’s Office, when asked to supply school resources officers to the school district never

provided training or created policies or procedures for the SROs on the use of physical force, including the use of handcuffs, on children, including children with disabilities.

The plaintiffs’ complaint alleges that

video footage of S.R.’s handcuffing depicts Defendant Sumner saying to the child: “You can do what we ask you to or you can suffer the consequences.” The video also allegedly shows Defendant Sumner pushing on the chain of the handcuffs to place S.R. in a chair and telling him, “Now sit down like I asked you to.”  Defendant Sumner also said to S.R.: “You know you’re . . . going to behave the way you’re supposed to or you suffer the consequences. It’s your decision to behave this way. If you want the handcuffs off, you’re going to have to behave and ask me nicely.” Throughout the interaction, the video depicts S.R. crying in pain, gasping, and squirming in his chair.

The officer’s behavior was similar with the other child and he, in fact, handcuffed her on another occasion. Both children have suffered emotional distress as a result, according to the complaint.

The DOJ correctly points out that

students can suffer lasting harmful consequences after an interaction with law enforcement. Indeed, students who experience coercive force by those in the criminal justice system are more likely to miss critical instructional time, struggle in class, disengage from learning, feel stigmatized or alienated, drop out, become involved in the juvenile justice system, and miss future educational opportunities. They face a greater risk of drug use, emotional difficulties, and low self-esteem. These law enforcement interactions can leave students feeling traumatized, anxious, humiliated, and deeply fearful of school. For children with disabilities, who may experience disproportionate contact with law enforcement in schools, such interactions can exacerbate the disability and the very behaviors that led to the SRO interaction.

As the DOJ goes on to say,

Best practices developed for implementing SRO programs demonstrate that, in efforts designed to help promote a safe learning environment in school, the role of SROs should be carefully circumscribed to ensure they do not become involved in routine disciplinary matters. SROs should use their law enforcement powers judiciously, to focus on safety, to avoid disability-based discrimination, and to avoid unnecessary criminalization of childhood behavior and perpetuation of the school-to-prison pipeline. These practices, if implemented, help ensure that schools and law enforcement agencies effectively protect school safety while avoiding violations of the federal rights of students.

The DOJ has issued guidance on how to deal with people with disabilities which includes:

Some examples of reasonable modifications that might be necessary for law enforcement officers when interacting with individuals with disabilities include:

1. Being aware that the officer’s uniform, gun, or handcuffs may frighten an individual with mental illness, and instead adopting a nonconfrontational stance by removing the officer’s hat, sitting down, and assuring the individual that he or she is heard.

2. Asking an individual with mental illness questions regarding his basic needs such as “What would make you feel safer/calmer, etc.?”

In my own practice, I have seen the devastating impact on children with disabilities when school resource officers aggressively interact with them. My case against the Sun Prairie police settled just prior to trial. But too many children who suffer at the hands of over aggressive school resource officers cannot find legal representation. Hopefully, the DOJ’s involvement in the Kentucky case will result in a strong message from that federal court and convince both school districts and police departments to alter their practices and stop the flow into the school to prison pipeline.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.