Among the many reasons we have a school to prison pipeline is that many school districts place police officers in schools. While best practice is to limit police involvement in schools to genuine emergencies, leaving general school behavior management to the educators in the school, many school districts believe that safety requires stationing police officers in their schools. School based police officers are often given euphemistic names like, police liaison officers or school resources officers. In Madison, they are dubbed educational resource officers (ERO), though they are not educators.
Although it did not take place in school, a recent interaction between Madison police and black youth at a large public event, demonstrated the lack of training of the police officers at the scene, as to how to de-escalate teens who were fighting. Without such training, police used pepper spray in a crowded public area causing innocent bystanders to suffer the painful effects of the pepper spray. Madison Police Chief Mike Koval conceded that,
conditions were less than ideal for using pepper spray. A brewing storm was kicking up wind that may have led to “collateral exposures.” But he defended his officers’ actions, saying that those involved in the alleged fight “could have been roundhoused to the point where they might have had fractures or lose consciousness.”
In a case in which I represented a middle school boy against the Sun Prairie police because the officer slammed my client’s head to the ground when he would not give the officer his cell phone (the boy has disabilities and was granted permission to use his phone by the school), when I took the officer’s deposition, it was clear that he had no training in dealing with teenagers, nor children with disabilities. The case settled just before the trial was scheduled to take place.
Fortunately, there are resources available to provide training to police when they interact with teens, whether in school or in public. Put simply, when policing the teen brain, there are better ways to communicate because teen brains are different.
Strategies for Youth provides training for police on how to successfully interact with teens. Police have used this training successfully in Virginia Beach, although nationally, only about 1% of police training includes strategies for dealing with teens. The training program helps police and youth by:
- Making interactions with youth easier and faster, less conflicted and more compliant;
- Asserting authority effectively with youth with reduced reliance on force and arrest;
- Recognizing and responding appropriately to youth presenting mental health and addiction issues;
- Investing in youth and increasing youths’ trust and communication with police;
- Reducing departments’ overtime and court costs by partnering with youth serving, community-based organizations for low-level offenses; and
- Supporting good community relations and reduce complaints.
The Madison Police Department and the Madison Metropolitan School District are currently examining the role of police in Madison schools. Any agreement to continue to the placement of educational resource officers in all of Madison’s high schools should include mandatory training for these officers on successful interactions with teens in order to reduce the school to prison pipeline and keep everyone in school safe.
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.