Wake schools review resource officers

Tata is looking into program

Staff WriterJuly 5, 2011 

Police officers roaming the halls of Wake County middle schools and high schools have become a common sight, but changes could come in the way they do their jobs.

Wake County Superintendent Tony Tata is reviewing the effectiveness of the school resource officer program after school board members questioned their training, use of force and how often they file criminal complaints against students. Board members are talking about revising the agreement that governs how law enforcement agencies assign officers to work in schools.

"We rely on law enforcement officers to be law enforcement officers, but we're not sure how much training there is working with school-age children, particularly in a school setting," board member Keith Sutton said.

After school shootings in the 1990s, law enforcement agencies increasingly assigned police officers to work in schools. Called school resource officers, these armed officers enforce laws and, in some cases, teach classes.

Using state funds, the district pays law enforcement agencies an average of $80,000 per officer for each high school. Several agencies also provide officers to work at middle schools.

Supporters of the program maintain that the officers make schools safer.

James Sposato, principal of Wakefield Middle School in North Raleigh, said his school resource officer provides services such as directing traffic in the morning. He said the officer is a visible figure on campus who watches what's going on, talks with students and helps with discipline issues.

"It really helps us maintain a sense of safety," Sposato said. "It creates a more positive environment. It doesn't create an intimidating environment at all."

Some see a problem

But some civil rights and youth advocacy groups disagree. They contend that officers criminalize the school environment.

In February, Advocates for Children's Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, issued a report questioning the funding of school resource officers and recommending that the officers be barred from carrying firearms or Tasers. The group also wants the district to require more training for school resource officers.

Although school board members say they're not looking at disarming school resource officers or removing them from schools, they've been receptive to the report's recommendations. The fact that the school board is looking at the program has heartened critics.

"There's a more realistic middle ground where we can end up," said Jason Langberg, an attorney for Advocates for Children's Services.

Taser's use questioned

School board members have expressed concern about an incident in August in which a Cary officer used a Taser on a 13-year-old female student who was assaulting a 12-year-old male student at West Lake Middle School.Cary police determined the use of force was justified.

Though board members say they don't want to judge the officers, they do want to look at the circumstances when Tasers are used on students. They also want consider uniform guidelines for the use of force.

"Two grown-ups should be able to pull the kids apart without using a Taser," said John Tedesco, the school board's vice chairman.

Board members have been looking at the report in tandem with their efforts to change school discipline policies to reduce school suspensions. The board voted last month to have Tata conduct a review of the school resource officer program and report back in three months.

Talking to principals

Tata said that as part of his review he'll talk with principals. Sposato, the principal at Wakefield Middle, said the officers could become more important as an extra pair of eyes on campus now that budget cuts are forcing many schools to reduce the number of assistant principals.

Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison and Cary Deputy Police Chief Barry Nickalson said they'd welcome the chance to talk with school officials about their concerns. But they said the officers already receive training in how to work with students.

"We can talk about what's possible," Nickalson said. "We're all trying to reach the goal of having safe schools."

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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