On Dec. 1, 2014, a student was caught carrying a firearm at Fremont High School in Ogden. While a school resource officer (SRO) detained the student without incident and nobody was hurt or threatened, every other student on campus was negatively impacted.
That negative impact didn’t come from the armed student — it came from law enforcement officers who aggressively patted down and searched each student before they could leave the building. Many students were outraged and felt violated by these officials because, even though the students weren’t suspected of any wrongdoing, they were treated as if they were potential suspects.
Shortly after this incident, state Rep. Sandra Hollins sponsored a bill to require additional training for SROs — law enforcement officers working under contract with a school. The Utah Legislature passed the bill unanimously, requiring SROs to undergo training on a variety of issues including student privacy rights and cultural awareness. Legislators supporting the bill argued that this training was needed because working with adolescents in a school environment is much different than what officers have been traditionally trained for.
Across the nation, many unfortunate incidents between students and SROs have come to light in recent years: an officer violently slamming a teenage girl on the ground in a North Carolina school; a throwdown of a 16-year-old girl in South Carolina who was ripped from her chair and handcuffed; an incident where police grabbed a male student by his throat and threw him to the ground in Texas; and many more.
These incidents often garner national attention because they either affect a large number of students, or video evidence of the encounter brings awareness to the problem. But what about isolated events that happen to individuals who aren’t being recorded?
Based on the incidents listed above, there is a possibility that power is abused by SROs. However, policymakers and the public lack knowledge about the scope or frequency of SRO enforcement interactions on students. We cannot be sure of what is going on because there are currently no transparency requirements in place to make sure the relationship between schools, students and SROs is acceptable.
There may be problems with student-SRO interactions beyond what is seen in the media, but the only way to know is to require regular reporting from the school and law enforcement agency that employs the SRO. Transparency could be achieved with a mandatory annual data report that accounts for every search and seizure on campus, every arrest/detainment of a student and any use of force involving an SRO. Once the data is made available — with personal student information excluded — it can be used to analyze and correct problems in how law enforcement officers are being used in the school system.
The goal of a public school should be to provide a comfortable and safe learning environment for a diverse group of young people. The actions of certain SROs across the country certainly do not help create this ideal learning space, but instead, contribute to feelings of mistrust and fear. These encounters may be few and far between, but without the data to know that, it is speculation. The public should be better informed on how law enforcement officers are interacting with their children.
Are officers being used to discipline students for non-criminal behavior? Are pat downs of students occurring by police officers? Are parents made aware of their child being detained? Are witnesses present when SROs are interviewing a child? These are important policy considerations that more transparency would help inform.
Imagine being a parent whose child is unfairly targeted by an SRO. Wouldn’t you want to know what policies are in place, and whether it was an isolated event or part of a pattern?
Without transparency comes a considerable lack of knowledge that hinders progress and consent. Better informing the public will allow policymakers to work towards the goal of public education: providing a safe and trustworthy atmosphere so Utah children can comfortably learn as they grow.
Molly Davis is a policy analyst at Libertas Institute.