CARY — Under new guidelines presented Tuesday, police officers assigned to Wake County schools would undergo specialized training, receive direction on handling investigations and making arrests on campuses, and have to file a report whenever bringing charges against a student.
The new agreement, a memorandum of understanding developed by the school system and local law enforcement agencies, lays out far more detailed rules for the way the school resource officers would operate through June 2017. The agreement comes as the school system and local law enforcement agencies are facing a federal complaint alleging that minority students are being arrested for minor incidents that could have been handled by schools.
“This is a very progressive document,” school board member Keith Sutton said at a board meeting Tuesday. “Kudos to all of you that were involved, because this is a big difference from the last.”
The three-year agreement drew a mixed response from several community activists who spoke at the board meeting. They said it’s an improvement over the current agreement but still gives too much discretion to the school resource officers.
“We feel like the principals should have the first say-so,” said Selina Garcia, who graduated last week from Southeast Raleigh High School. “The principal should step in first before the SROs and before action is taken, charges are pressed and people are incarcerated.
“That’s just what we feel would be beneficial, and I know it would have been more beneficial for me.”
Garcia received media coverage after she was arrested in March by the school’s resource officer for fighting another student on a school bus. She spent three weeks in jail because the foster care system couldn’t find a place for Garcia, who was 17.
The board is scheduled to adopt the agreement June 17.
Multiple roles for officers
The school system contracts with law enforcement agencies to provide an armed officer at every high school and most middle schools. These police, called SROs, perform tasks from providing security to teaching classes and counseling students.
The current five-page agreement expires June 30. The new document has 15 pages.
The agreement lays out minimum training requirements for officers, including taking courses on working with students with disabilities and special needs, on cultural competency and on nondiscriminatory administration of school discipline.
The agreement says that law enforcement agencies will report quarterly to the school system on how many students – by race, gender and school – are referred by the school resource officer to the adult criminal justice system and juvenile petitions.
Officers can initiate law enforcement actions to address criminal matters when necessary to ensure the immediate safety of persons on school campuses. But the agreement says any such actions, including use of force, must be “reasonable.”
One speaker during a comment period, Bryan Perlmutter of Raleigh, told the board that the agreement should require the officers to get a referral from a school employee to intervene.
“The SROs still have too much control in the schools,” he said.
Concerning investigations and arrests, the agreement sets out the procedure for situations when police want to question a student on campus: The school resource officer is to notify the school, which in turn will notify a parent or guardian. If the parent or guardian isn’t present for questioning, the principal must sit in on the questioning unless ordered to leave by the officer.
Rules limit searches
Since school officials have a lower legal standard than police in conducting searches, the SRO is not allowed to ask a school employee to conduct a search of a student for law enforcement purposes.
If the investigation doesn’t involve a school matter, school resource officers aren’t supposed to question or arrest students on campus unless they have a warrant or a need to prevent injury or crime.
On school discipline matters, the agreement says that the school administration and not the officer has primary responsibility for maintaining order in the school environment and for investigating and responding to school disciplinary matters.
The agreement says the SRO should refer student discipline matters to the principal and not independently investigate or administer consequences for violating discipline rules.
In January, several local and national groups filed a federal complaint charging that the school system and local law enforcement agencies “unnecessarily and unlawfully punish and criminalize minor misbehaviors” of students from minority groups.
“There has been a lot of listening from the community, and that feedback has been incorporated into this document,” school board member Jim Martin said. “A lot of the concerns that we heard tonight, as we roll this out, we’re going to see a different kind of engagement, and I appreciate that.”
But amid the complaints Tuesday, parent Vickie Adamson told the board how glad she was that there was a sheriff’s deputy at Ligon Middle School in Raleigh when it was put on lockdown in January. The action followed a report that a gunman had been seen near the campus.
“I’m glad the SROs are going to stay in the schools,” she said. “It’s a good thing.”