Ramiyah Robinson bristles at the idea that this—the shocking video of a violent altercation between a school resource officer and a teenage girl at Wake County’s Rolesville High School—is an “isolated incident.”
“It’s not something new,” says Robinson, a senior at Southeast Raleigh High. “It happens all the time. Just because this time was documented, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”
Robinson was one of a handful of rain-soaked protesters convening a small press conference at Wake County Public School System’s (WCPSS) Cary office Tuesday, demanding, among other reforms, that school leaders yank all police officers from the county’s schools.
The call follows a Jan. 3 incident at Rolesville High, in which a town police officer is captured on tape violently slamming a student to the ground. The officer, Ruben De Los Santos of the Rolesville Police Department, has reportedly been placed on leave, pending an investigation of the altercation.
According to media reports, the student sought to break up a fight when De Los Santos manhandled her, re-igniting racial tensions— De Los Santos is of Latino descent; the student is African-American—and a debate over the growing police presence in public schools nationwide.
Rolesville Police Chief Bobby Langston declined comment on the investigation or the protest this week.
But critics with local advocacy groups such as the Education Justice Alliance and the Youth Organizing Institute say school officials in Wake should remove the “regular” police presence in local schools. In the absence of such reform, they say schools should speed greater training for school resource officers (SROs) and limit the manner in which they can be called upon to enforce school discipline.
For their part, WCPSS leaders say the Rolesville High controversy coincides with this year’s plans for school board members to review a 2014 memorandum of understanding (MOU) that allows police and deputies from ten Wake County law enforcement agencies, including the Rolesville Police Department, to provide SROs in local schools. That agreement expires at the end of June.
“The process will happen,” says Lisa Luten, spokeswoman for WCPSS. “In context with what occurred at Rolesville High and with other types of feedback we’ve gotten from the community, we’ll make up a new agreement that will need to be signed this upcoming year.”
Monika Johnson-Hostler is the chair of the Wake County Board of Education. In an interview this week with Policy Watch, she said she expects the board to at least propose additional training for officers, if not the sweeping overhaul proposed by groups like the Education Justice Alliance.
“It’s a hard conversation for me,” says Johnson-Hostler. “My personal thinking is it’s harder to dial back something that’s become institutionalized. I don’t mean it can’t happen, but those are conversations we have to have.”
The Wake County school system, the largest in the state, is certainly not the only district utilizing SROs to provide security on campus. Schools nationwide are increasingly relying on campus police, researchers find. And, more and more often, they are being called upon to deal with all manner of school disruptions, large or small, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
Furthermore, research suggests students are significantly more likely in schools staffed with SROs to face arrest. All of this, critics say, feeds the so-called “school to prison pipeline,” sticking students with hard-to-shake criminal charges long before they qualify for a high school diploma.
“Let the parents patrol the halls, not the police,” says Fernando Martinez, a parent organizer with the Education Justice Alliance who joined Robinson at Tuesday’s protest.
And don’t suggest, Robinson asserts, that this is all just an over-reaction.
“It’s something that happens,” she says. “I’m not going to say on an everyday basis, but it happens more often than what you might think.”
All of this didn’t begin with Ben Fields, a white South Carolina cop who, infamously, slung a black high school girl across a classroom in 2015 when she reportedly refused to surrender her cell phone to school administrators.
Fields lost his job but was absolved of any criminal charges in the case, which spurred nationwide calls for SRO scrutiny.
Yet Jason Nance, an associate law professor at the Univ. of Florida who authored an influential 2016 study of school police data, says complaints of abuse and disproportionate arrests in schools utilizing on-campus police have risen just as the number of SROs has spiked in the last five decades.
“I was dismayed by this. I was disappointed. But I was not surprised,” Nance says of the now-viral Rolesville High video. “Because we’re starting to see more and more of these incidents occur.”
Johnson-Hostler, of the Wake school board, says she was “shocked and appalled” by the incident.
“As a parent, a school board member and a member of the community, I think we can all agree that’s not what we want to see in our schools.”
But Nance only expects communities like Wake to see more troubling videos like this in the years to come.
“We’ve heard about incidents like these happening for quite some time, but it wasn’t until the advent of mobile devices in students’ hands that we started to see these videos. Now we have visual evidence these things do occur.”
According to Nance, the strong police presence in schools across the U.S. is relatively new. Although on-campus cops were first employed in the 1950s, he points out national statistics show their number has risen from fewer than 100 in the 1970s to an estimated 30,000 today, particularly spiking after high-profile shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High in 1999 and Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.
Such incidents dominated headlines, he says, despite data that indicate students are, generally speaking, safe in schools.
Nance partially attributes the rise to nationwide calls for local school leaders to “get tough” on youth offenders, as well as efforts to increase accountability in school performance, a trend that he worries may pressure educators into excluding certain “low-performers.”
He also points out schools frequently have scant resources for school counselors and teachers who lean on police to handle routine disciplinary issues that would otherwise be delegated to school staff.
Nance’s report, published in the Washington University Law Review in 2016, reveals that, with the presence of regular on-campus police, schools are more likely to call on police for both “serious” and “less serious” events. In the latter example, police, rather than school personnel, are handling reports of vandalism, theft and fights between unarmed students similar to the incident at Rolesville High.
The trend has spurred groups as divergent as the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and the ACLU to publicly question whether SROs are doing more harm than good in U.S. schools. Based on his data, Nance is equally skeptical.
“That does not mean that all SROs are bad people,” he says. “I don’t think they are. I think most are very good and they’re trying to do their job, but it raises questions about whether or not SROs belong in schools at all. It certainly raises questions that if we are going to have them in schools, what kind of changes are we going to make?”
Count Letha Muhammad of the Education Justice Alliance as another skeptic. Her group advocates for equity in student disciplinary practices, heeding persistent racial gaps in the use of suspensions for North Carolina students.
The debate holds many similarities with ongoing criticism of on-campus police, with some advocates saying the stiff SRO presence in schools has disproportionately affected minority children.
“One incident is one incident too many,” says Muhammad, who, this week, urged leaders in Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) to rely less on police and more on trained school mediators, be they counselors or parents.
The recommendations of Muhammad’s group mirror those of school experts such as Nance, who, in addition to counseling enhanced diversity and crisis mediation training for campus police, advise that school districts craft agreements with local police that explicitly specify—for both educators and police—what incidents merit an SRO’s involvement.
WCPSS’ agreement seems to offer both, requiring 40 hours of SRO training and advising against police involvement in “routine disciplinary matters, such as tardies, loitering, noncompliance, the use of appropriate language, dress code violations, minor classroom disruptions and disrespectful behaviors and other similar minor infractions of school rules.”
It also prescribes a ban on SRO use of force that is “excessive, arbitrary or malicious.” In that way, WCPSS exceeds many districts across the nation not offering similar protections.
Yet Muhammad and other social justice advocates say the MOU can always be strengthened. And furthermore, they believe schools’ ultimate goal should be the wholesale removal of SROs, in addition to boosts for school support staff—guidance counselors, social workers and trained community members.
Should schools face a situation in which students and staff are in danger, Muhammad says administrators should do what every other institution does when it faces such a crisis.
“Call the police,” she says. “They’re trained to handle situations like that and respond quickly.”
For now, Johnson-Hostler says she isn’t sure Wake school board members will be amenable to such a sweeping proposal.
“If not (SROs), then what?” asks Johnson-Hostler. “If we didn’t have SROs, we’d be training some more people to do these things. We have to be thoughtful to that as a school board. We actually have to pay for these things. We have to make sure we have every piece of the puzzle and we’re not just talking at each other.”
In the end, Nance says school districts like Wake should make a decision based on the simple pros and cons of campus police. For the moment, Nance says he knows which way he’s tilting.
“If we have questions on the benefits and we have clear indicators of the costs, then I think the costs do outweigh the benefits.”