Wake County develops new guidelines for school police officers

khui@newsobserver.comJune 1, 2014 

Amid a federal civil-rights complaint and national media coverage about school policing in Wake County, new guidelines will be unveiled this week governing the role of officers assigned to schools.

On Tuesday, school administrators will present a draft of an agreement between the district and the area’s law enforcement agencies that lays out how school resource officers will function in the future. While school leaders were short on specifics, they said the new agreement, a memorandum of understanding, includes some of the changes that civil-rights groups have long requested.

“I think the community should be very pleased with what we’re doing,” school board member Bill Fletcher said.

Activists who attended a meeting last week with Superintendent Jim Merrill said they were told the agreement would include greater training for officers, more accountability for officers and greater data collection and reporting of officers’ actions.

The meeting left the activists, who’ve complained that police arrest too many students for minor incidents, feeling cautiously optimistic.

“Wake County has the potential to be a model for other districts in the country,” said Jennifer Story, an attorney for Advocates For Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of N.C. “It’s a big district with a lot of diversity. We’re moving in a good direction.”

The school board will review the proposed agreement on Tuesday with adoption scheduled for June 17.

The school system contracts with law enforcement agencies to provide an armed officer to every high school and most middle schools. These school resource officers, or SROs, do everything from providing security to teaching classes and counseling students.

School shootings since the 1990s have led to a nationwide increase in the number of school resource officers.

“The times have changed,” Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison said. “Police officers need to be there and I’ll support that. We need to be there to keep students and staff safe.”

The current agreement expires June 30. It says that the SRO “shall intervene when it is necessary to prevent any criminal act or maintain a safe school environment.” But Story said the agreement is so vague that it’s allowed things such as a student being handcuffed for cutting in line in the school cafeteria.

In January, Advocates For Children’s Services and 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.

Story said the U.S. Justice Department hasn’t said whether it will open an investigation into the complaint.

The complaint was filed the same day that the cable news channel Al Jazeera America’s “America Tonight” show aired a segment highlighting a May 2013 incident at Enloe High School where Raleigh police arrested seven students while responding to a water-balloon fight. Police were called to the scene amid rumors that the balloons might be filled with noxious substances, not just water.

School policing received even more attention in March after a Southeast Raleigh student was arrested by the school resource officer for a fight on a school bus. The student spent three weeks in jail because the foster care system could not find a place for her.

Listening to the community

For the past three years, activists have been pressing for changes in the agreement governing school resource officers. They’ve escalated the lobbying in recent months.

“I don’t know how many classmates that started school with me my freshman year will not only miss their graduation ceremony, but may never get housing, or employment or health care or the right to vote because they were criminalized and funneled into the prison industrial complex for a nonviolent offense that they committed as teenagers,” Qasima Wideman, a Southeast Raleigh High senior and member of the youth group NC HEAT, said at the May 20 school board meeting.

School board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said they listened to the concerns of groups such as NC HEAT in developing the new agreement.

Fletcher, the school board member, said they have been listening to the community all along. As an example, he cited the board’s adoption in December of a policy that tells principals what to do when police officers other than the school resource officer want to question students.

Story said potential changes in the agreement, such as requiring school resource officers to document how often they detain students, will provide valuable information to the public.

The new agreement seems to be acceptable to law enforcement.

“I don’t see anything that I’m really concerned about,” said Harrison, the Wake County sheriff.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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