Wake County school employees could soon be encouraged to use words instead of force to break up confrontations between students.
School leaders are considering adding wording to the county’s school safety policy that would remind employees that “it is the philosophy of the Board to use de-escalation and other non-physical means to address safety concerns.” If force is necessary, the updated policy says employees should limit it “to the amount needed to prevent harm to self and others.”
“There are a lot of people in the community who have been asking what is the Wake County Public Schools’ stance on the use of force,” school board member Jim Martin said in an interview. “I think that it’s appropriate for us to provide an answer to that question that gets raised with some regularity.
“I think where we’ve landed is appropriate. Our expectation is to start with de-escalation.”
Martin leads the school board’s policy committee, which suggested the new use of force language and reviewed the changes this week. The policy will now be reviewed by the Superintendent’s Teacher Advisory Council and Rodney Trice, the assistant superintendent for equity affairs.
Wake County teachers receive training on how to verbally de-escalate situations from Wisconsin-based Crisis Prevention Institute.
“We all want to de-escalate situations and not use any force at all,” said Paulette Jones Leaven, president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators. “That’s the prime goal.”
But Jones Leaven said some situations are so volatile that it’s not realistic to use de-escalation tactics. She also said that high school teachers like herself are leery of physically intervening in fights because of the size of students and the fear of litigation.
Martin said the new wording about use of force is consistent with what’s expected of school resource officers, who are law enforcement officers assigned to work in schools. Under an agreement with local law enforcement agencies, use of force by school resource officers “shall not be excessive, arbitrary or malicious.”
School board member Keith Sutton said he hopes the new district wording will lead to a conversation with law enforcement on a more specific definition of what’s acceptable use of force in schools.
“What may be excessive to me might not be excessive to you,” said Sutton, who had asked for a use of force section in the board policy.
Use of force by school resource officers has been questioned since a video was posted online in January showing an officer lifting a Rolesville High School student in the air and slamming her to the floor. The officer later resigned from the Rolesville Police Department. No criminal charges were filed after a Wake County grand jury decided not to hand up indictments.
There was also some controversy when a video was posted on social media in March showing an African-American student at Wake Forest High School pulling a white classmate to the floor twice, including once after being called a “black piece of (expletive).” A teacher can be seen on the video racing out of her classroom and telling the African-American student to go to the office as she says “Don’t touch me” and “He used words.”
Some people criticized the teacher’s actions, but school officials have praised the teacher for de-escalating the situation.
Martin said explicitly mentioning de-escalation in the policy will serve as a regular reminder of what’s expected of school employees.
“I think there’s a value in putting it in direct language,” he said. “This is what we stand for. This is the approach that we expect.”