A report on the School Resource Officer Program, which places police officers in Wake County schools, says violent incidents are down and school administrators are happy with the program. But some community groups say the report is misleading.
Critics say officers assigned to work in middle and high school settings do not get enough training for dealing with children and teens.
Wake Schools Security Director Russ Smith stated that the number of violent incidents for middle and high school students had decreased 54 percent per 1,000 students since the 2005-06 school year.
The review also reported the results of a survey, which indicated that school administrators are pleased with the results of the SRO program. The survey, conducted by Wake schools, consisted of five questions asked of 167 school administrators in the county’s middle and high schools. No students or SROs were surveyed.
Superintendent Tony Tata said the review means “that the program is not broken; it is working very well.”
But Jason Langberg, an attorney with Advocates for Children’s Services, the information presented to the school board regarding SROs and violent offenses in schools was misleading.
“Schools are among the safest places for children,” Langberg said. “That number [of violent offenses] is so incredibly low already that a decrease in 50 percent is misleading because the sample size is so small to begin with.”
Langberg also said the juvenile crime rate has been decreasing across the board dramatically during the past five to 10 years.
“There was a causal link drawn between that decrease and the presence of SROs, which is statistically not sound reasoning,” Langberg said.
He argued it is irresponsible to determine that the decline was in fact due to the presence of SROs in schools without additional research, and that this lack of thorough evaluation is the real problem.
“It’s hypocritical to push and push and push on teacher accountability and standardized testing when you’re paying law enforcement officers — for training, salary, benefits, and equipment — $80,000 a year,” Langberg said. “So you’re paying them more than teachers, and they’re armed, but yet there’s no real studies, there’s no evaluation taking place, there are no real standards across the board for the SROs.”
Tata said the standards and training for SROs are addressed in the Memorandum of Understanding that Wake County Schools holds with the 12 municipal police departments who supply the officers.
In the MOU, police agree to train school officers to state standards. Then, each of the 12 municipalities is responsible for organizing and implementing its own SRO-specific training.
Patty Williams with the Great Schools in Wake Coalition cites this lack of special training as the biggest issue with police officers in schools.
“If you’re trained to be a police officer working for any of the municipalities, and then you’re assigned say to a middle school, and there’s a fight in the middle school, as there was at West Lake last year,” Williams said, “you take out your Taser and solve the problem that way.”
She said she’d like to think there is a better way to intervene at the middle school level.
“That comes as part of a comprehensive reevaluation of SROs in our public schools that includes appropriate age-level training,” Williams said.
The report included an action plan, which calls for a meeting with all SROs to review and evaluate the Code of Student Conduct, the agreement with the county, the survey results, and information on special needs students. The meeting is tentatively scheduled Aug. 23.
Langberg said the agreement the school system has with police departments needs to be thoroughly evaluated and strengthened, in accordance with other successful SRO programs in places such as Jefferson County, Alabama and Clayton County, Georgia.
“Those MOUs get into a lot more detail about what the qualifications are, what’s the training like, and what are the limitations on when they can send the kids to the criminal and juvenile justice systems,” Langberg said.
Langberg acknowledged that several municipalities require specific training for their SROs, but argued that it is necessary to establish whether those training sessions are appropriate and effective, and then determine a way to make them consistent and replicable across the district.
“In a time of budget cuts and accountability, to spend over $4 million on a program that has never been thoroughly evaluated and has really no consistent governing standards, it’s really sort of irresponsible,” Langberg said.