Wake County wants to calm immigrant concerns about school police officers

School resource officer Pete Smith uses a body-worn camera at Knightdale High School. He uses the camera if there is a fight or if he needs to interview students.
School resource officer Pete Smith uses a body-worn camera at Knightdale High School. He uses the camera if there is a fight or if he needs to interview students. News & Observer file photo

Wake County school leaders hope to reassure the immigrant community that school resource officers won’t use their positions to help deport students or their families.

The Wake school board is working on a policy revision that clarifies the authority of school resource officers, who provide security, speak in classes and mentor students.

Under the current policy, school resource officers get special access to be on campus and to talk with students. Under the change, the policy would say that the special access extends only to regular school-related duties.

That means the officers shouldn’t ask students about whether they or their families are in the country illegally, because such information wouldn’t be part of their job.

The wording change comes after a coalition of community groups urged North Carolina’s largest school district to do more to protect students who are not in the country legally.

School board member Jim Martin said the review came up because it was brought to the district’s attention that sheriff’s deputies can serve as immigration agents. The Wake County Sheriff’s Office participates in the 287(g) program that allows the federal government to delegate immigration enforcement powers to local law agencies if an undocumented immigrant is arrested.

Martin said the new wording is a “technical correction” that spells out what was intended all along about the roles of school resource officers. The school system contracts with law enforcement agencies, including the Wake Sheriff’s Office, for more than 60 armed officers to work at high schools and most middle schools.

“That review found there was language that could lead to confusion,” said Martin, chairman of the policy committee that reviewed the new wording this week. “The intent of all our policy reviews is to minimize confusion and provide clarity.”

Wake Sheriff Donnie Harrison, who has deputies assigned to more than 20 schools, said the policy change isn’t necessary. He said his deputies don’t ask about immigration status unless a person is in jail.

“I want the Hispanic community, I want the Honduran community to understand we don’t ask questions whether you’re legal, documented or undocumented,” Harrison said. “We want them to call us because we want to protect them.”

School resource officers are exempt from a school board policy that governs when law-enforcement officers want to question, search and arrest students on campus. Officers who are not SROs are supposed to notify school administrators ahead of time when they want to talk to students on campus and are generally accompanied by school personnel when they’re on campus.

A separate memorandum of understanding governs the school resource officers.

Concerns about deportation have risen since President Donald Trump took office. On the Feb. 16 “Day Without Immigrants,” some Wake schools had a significant number of absences as Hispanic students stayed home in protest.

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that students are guaranteed the right to attend public schools regardless of their immigration status. But students who are not in the country legally can be deported.

Immigration rights activists want the school board to adopt a resolution that says federal immigration enforcement activities on or near district schools “harmfully disrupt the learning environment.” But Martin noted that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement lists schools as examples of “sensitive locations” where the agency generally tries to avoid law enforcement activities.

On Tuesday, the school board’s policy committee backed a modification to the law enforcement policy to say the SRO exemption only applies when they’re “exercising the duties for conducting school-related investigations as set forth in the School Resource Officer Program Memorandum of Understanding.” It will go to the full board for approval.

“When they’re operating under the MOU and they’re trying to keep the school safe and deal with school-level crime, then they get this special access and this policy really doesn’t apply.” said school board attorney Jonathan Blumberg.

Letha Muhammad, a leader of the Education Justice Alliance, said she still wished Wake would adopt a resolution declaring schools as safe zones from immigration enforcement. She said she wants to see how the policy revision would work.

“Hopefully it is a greater protection,” Muhammad said. “I’m looking for greater clarity.”

Harrison, the sheriff, said the board’s actions show why his suggestion that the district should set up its own school police force makes sense.

Members of the school board “don’t tell my deputies what to do,” Harrison said. “They work for me.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui