An 11-year old Utah boy faced assault charges. What advocates say needs to change

School resource officers roam the halls of many Utah schools, but their purpose varies.

He is a bright and loving 12-year-old with a sharp memory. He never forgets a promise his parents made, whether it’s about receiving a treat or a payment for a completed chore.

“Two years later he’ll come to us and say, ‘Hey, did you ever pay me for this?’” said Brian, the boy’s father, with a chuckle. “Which is pretty amazing. He remembers details of conversations and items that most people can’t remember at all.”

He’s autistic. He gets frustrated when things aren’t done the way he believes they should be. When people cheat during a game, it can cause an outburst. If he’s provoked, he responds. He doesn’t like to lose.

“He sees no gray,” says the father of the boy, who The Tribune is not naming in an effort to protect his identity.

His parents are aware of how challenging their son can be, especially on bad days.

But Brian doesn’t believe his son, who was in the fifth grade at the time, should have been charged with two counts of assault by a school resource officer (SRO) at the age of 11.

“It’s not OK for an 11-year-old to be charged with a crime of this level, especially with his diagnoses,” he said. “It is completely inappropriate for a school resource officer to be involved at all. And if that is how school resource officers act, frankly, that system needs to be changed dramatically.”

What the data shows

As of April, there are 212 school resource officers assigned to Utah schools, according to the Department of Public Safety, and there are roughly 674,000 K-12 students in Utah schools. SROs are sworn officers who have completed the state’s Peace Officer Standards Training.

Some schools have a full-time officer, while some districts share SROs. In Utah, the role of SROs differs depending on the school or district. And experts agree Utah’s SRO data is nearly non-existent.

However, available Utah and national data demonstrate a pattern when it comes to child punishment in schools.

A 2014 report by the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah illustrates Utah children with disabilities were twice as likely to be disciplined and suspended from school than their non-disabled peers. That same report highlights that children with disabilities, specifically youth with a mental health, sensory or learning disability, were likely undercounted in Utah’s Juvenile Justice System.

“In theory, the number of expelled or suspended students with disabilities,” the report reads, “should be lower than the number of expelled or suspended students without disabilities,” as a result of federal laws like the Individual Disabilities Education Act.

IDEA protects students from punishment if the act in question stemmed from their disability.

Utah falls well below the national average. According to the U. law report, only 26% of youth under Utah Juvenile Justice Services’ custody qualified for special needs education during the 2010-2011 academic year.

Rather than deter delinquent behavior, national research shows SROs contribute to an increase in arrests for noncriminal behavior and directly introduce children to the juvenile justice system. Furthermore, a state JJS working group report revealed that 80% of youth were referred to the court system for misdemeanor offenses.

Prior to the criminal charges the boy faced in 2021, teachers, administrators and classmates in the Nebo School District treated the boy differently, his father says. Since kindergarten, the boy has been in and out of the principal’s office for known reactions associated with his conditions. Despite the boy’s battles with ADHD, depression and anxiety, Brian says school administrators suspended his son rather than provide accommodations mandated by federal law.

It wasn’t until the boy’s parents hired a lawyer when he was in the first grade did the elementary school compile an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP).

“The parents and I have been fighting for support services required by federal law for their son for a very long time,” Erin Preston, a Utah education lawyer, said.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erin Preston, a Utah Education Lawyer, sits at her desk for a portrait on Thursday, March 10, 2022. She is representing two clients that have faced criminal charges based off a Student Resource Officer complaint.

In accordance with the boy’s IEP, he was assigned a full-time aide to assist with his behavioral issues.

The day before the SRO recommended charging the boy with two Class B Misdemeanors, Brian says his son was placed in a position they have repeatedly warned the school to avoid. It was during PE class. The kids were playing a competitive game.

“We were constantly trying to get the school to not have him participate in those types of games where there’s a winner and a loser, because if he’s in a loser category, it’s really hard for him,” Brian said. “And yet they kept having him play those games anyways.”

Things escalated. To the boy, his classmates weren’t following the rules. The other kids were bumping into the boy, the father says. The game wasn’t supposed to have contact. Unable to control his emotions, the boy lashed out.

According to the police report obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, witnesses claim the boy pushed his classmate to the ground. The PE teacher said the boy was simply “acting too aggressive or rough for the game,” according to the police report. She didn’t consider it assault.

The SRO issued two assault charges anyway. Nowhere on the police report does it note the boy’s known disabilities or that he has an IEP.

Pam Vickery, the director of Utah Juvenile Defender Attorneys, acknowledges Utah has made big strides in juvenile justice reform. The Utah Legislature has passed bills requiring data tracking of SRO interactions with kids (which go into effect in 2023), cultural training for SROs and clear training for officers and school administrators about what the exact role of an SRO is. Most recently, Utah became one of two states to prohibit cops from lying to children to coerce a confession.

Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, brought the responsibility of providing training for SROs to the Utah State Board of Education with S.B. 234, which passed in the 2021 legislative session. The bill requires the board to create a training program for principals, school personnel and SROs.

The program may include cultural awareness guidance and recommendations for working with students who have disabilities, the bill states, among other topics. Sgt. Jeremy Barnes, Department of Public Safety liaison for the Utah State Board of Education, is working to develop the training ahead of the 2022-23 academic year, but it is not available yet.

Hollins previously asked the board to create a training program for SROs with HB 460 in 2016, which also required school districts to outline an officer’s responsibilities while negotiating their contract.

It’s unclear if these requirements are being met. Utah doesn’t have standardized SRO training in place. School districts must schedule their own SRO training.

“Every principal that you talk to will describe the role of a school resource officer in a different way,” said Anna Thomas, a senior policy analyst at Voices of Utah Children. “In some schools, they’re used as mentors. In some schools, they’re used as classroom management aides. In some schools, they’re very strictly used for law-enforcement purposes, although that’s pretty rare.”

Purpose of SROs

With 41 school districts in Utah, the role of an SRO can vary vastly depending on where they’re working. Some rural school districts, like Wayne and Garfield, don’t employ SROs at all.

Along the Wasatch Front, nearly every high school has an SRO, while several officers rotate among middle and elementary schools in each district, said Barnes.

The National Association of School Resource Officers offers a training program that focuses on three roles SROs should play in schools: law enforcement officers, informal role models and educators. Not every district requires officers to take the NASRO training.

Districts and police departments negotiate what the responsibilities of an SRO will be through a memorandum of understanding. Some districts may want an SRO to teach drug prevention programs like D.A.R.E. or give guest lectures on the Bill of Rights, while others may ask their officers to focus on emergency preparedness, Barnes said.

NASRO specifies that SROs should only become involved if a student breaks the law. They should not be involved in administrative approaches to discipline, Barnes said.

(Rachel Rydalch | The Salt Lake Tribune) Student Resource Officer Supervisor Jason DeHerrera stations himself at an exit of Hunter High School at the end of a school day while students are leaving on Thursday, March 24, 2022. SRO’s often want to have positive interactions with students.

In response to the boy’s actions in PE class, the school’s principal suspended him for one day. The boy’s father thought that was it. The family had IEP meeting with the school the following day, where they were told the boy would be suspended for more than one day. The district lawyer, who was in the IEP meeting, immediately stepped in and said they would have a private conversation with the principal. After the conversation, it was decided a one-day suspension was sufficient.

The family was later informed by the SRO that he recommended assault charges against the boy.

“It’s absolutely ludicrous that a school resource officer was involved in this altercation at all,” Brian said. “This was resolved by the school district.”

The state offers a 16-hour program for school-based policing and many districts require NASRO trainings for officers, Barnes said, but not every officer receives additional training. How much training an officer receives is determined by the school district in its Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs).

“These trainings are available, but it does not necessarily mean that there’s any mandate that requires an officer to attend,” Barnes said.

Who pays for training is also negotiated in MOUs, but for the most part, Barnes said, the organization that pays the officers funds the training. That means if a police department can’t or doesn’t want to pay for school-focused training, the officer often doesn’t receive any.

Granite School District is the only district in the state which houses its own police department. It includes 24 full-time, sworn officers, some of whom work for local police departments like Kearns and Taylorsville. Granite School District Police Department receives between 12,000 and 15,000 calls to its dispatch center annually, said district spokesperson Ben Horsley.

The geographical size of the district, which spans from Holladay to Magna, and the amount of calls it receives makes it more cost effective for the district to hire officers as employees than negotiate with other police departments. It also allows the district to establish its own expectations for officer conduct and take swift action if an officer makes a mistake.

“It’s a community-oriented police component,” Horsley said. “[Officers] are not there as a driving force to really root out crime. Although you can help with investigations, what you’re there to do is build relationships and then help prevent crime.”

During a ridealong with the Granite Police Department, officers Brandon White and Tom Poer said the atmosphere had become more intense in the wake of a shooting that happened near Hunter High’s campus that killed two football players and hospitalized one in January.

They’re focusing on making connections with students to become more aware of potential danger before it can materialize.

Officers are also trying to help students recover. Hunter’s SROs were the first officers who responded to the scene of the shooting.

Granite School District offered the officers three weeks of counseling and leave time, but “nothing prepares you for that,” White said.

What sets Granite apart, Sgt. Jason DeHerrera said, is the investment from school and district administrators to work with officers and provide resources for students.

”I’ve never been put in a situation where I didn’t have a resource available to me to offer to somebody,” DeHerrera said.

Granite required every officer in its district to take the NASRO training starting in 2018 and pays for officers from allied agencies to receive the training.

The district heavily emphasizes the partnership between administrators, who are responsible for disciplining students, and officers who are responsible for responding to and preventing crime. Sgt. Jason DeHerrera often has to train officers on shifting their focus away from charging people with crimes and toward getting them help when they start working in the district.

“We teach them to recognize really what’s going on with the kids rather than to focus on what they created,” DeHerrera said.

New hires must complete 400 to 600 hours of field training with a veteran SRO before they work on their own, DeHerrera added.

“This is not a typical police agency and not a typical police response,” Horsley added. “... At the end of the day, these are children and they all deserve a second chance to some degree or another. And our job should be to point out the problem, give them the resources and the intervention to help them learn from their mistakes and then let them move on their way.”

Granite is unique

Granite had already adopted many of the training recommendations Hollins made in 2016, including instituting restorative justice practices and age-appropriate interactions with students, and acted as a test case for Hollins’ bill, Horsley said.

Currently, only 24 states require SROs to have specialized training or certification to work with K-12 students. Only 15 states mandate schools and law enforcement enter an MOU before interacting with students. While Hollins’ 2016 bill required districts to outline responsibilities for SROs when negotiating their contracts, districts ultimately decide what is included in the MOU.

Moisés Próspero is the executive director of iCHAMPS, a community-centered organization aiming to create better relationships between law enforcement and youth. In 2018, he and retired Magna City police chief Steve Anjewierdenk facilitated a School-Based Law Enforcement Training to equip SROs with a basic, clear understanding of what their job should entail.

Before the 4-hour training, Próspero said he wasn’t aware of a single school district in the state that had a concrete MOU.

“That is just crazy to me,” he said, “that you would allow humans, even if they are professionals, with guns to be in your school with an extremely vulnerable population or children and not have some kind of agreement.”

After the training, an evaluation showed SROs and school administrators had a significantly better understanding of their involvement in school discipline, how to positively improve student behavior, how mental health impacts students and when court referrals were necessary.

Additionally, the training prompted more districts to compose more solidified MOUs, including Canyon School District and Salt Lake City School District. But some MOUs “still need updating,” Próspero said.

In one Georgia county that established a detailed set of rules for SRO conduct, the rate of court referrals decreased by 67%. There was also a 31% drop in felony referral rates, and school detention decreased by 86%. Court referrals of youth of color also decreased, by 43%, and there was a 73% reduction in reports of serious weapons on campus.

Another 2017 U. legal report adds that, beyond MOUs, SROs need training about “behavioral issues of students...”

“SROs should recognize that students with disabilities often engage in undesirable behavior not because they are ‘bad kids,’ but simply because they have behavioral challenges due to their disabilities,” the report reads.

Ultimately, the SROs recommended assault charges against the boy were never filed. But it didn’t come without a fight. The boy risked having a criminal record at the age of 11 after his parents rejected a non-judicial resolution that would require the boy to admit full guilt in order to avoid the courtroom, despite that being illegal under Utah law.

“If I didn’t have a lawyer, what would have happened to my son?” Brian asked rhetorically. “He would have had a record. He would have been charged with assault.

“I’m lucky. I can afford a lawyer. It allowed me to help my son in a way that, quite frankly, a lot of parents don’t have.”

Editor’s note • This story is available to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers only. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Correction • April 26, 2022, 3:30 p.m.: This story has been updated to correct the number of officers in the Granite School District’s police department.