Bills aim to lessen student contact with law enforcement

Bills aim to lessen student contact with law enforcement

(Calif.) A pair of bills introduced this month seeks to limit student interaction with police on campus following numerous high profile incidents of minor violations escalating to violence against students.

School boards would also be required to increase transparency in reporting peace officer interactions with students, develop procedures allowing community members to lodge complaints about misconduct, and consider how to reduce the number of school resource officers on campus.

Supporters of AB 163 and AB 173 say the call to reduce student interaction with campus police for violating school rules or other instances of low-level misconduct will give students the opportunity to work through their issues before coming into contact with the criminal justice system.

“Students are criminalized for minor misbehaviors that used to be handled by sending them to the principal’s office or school counselor,” Linnea Nelson, education equity staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California said in an interview. “Police on campus have been trained to approach conflict more so by arresting people, rather than sitting them down and discussing the problem and how to resolve it like counselors who are more equipped to handle internal school issues and keep kids in class.”

Many states do not require officers who are placed in schools to get any additional training pertaining to working with kids, which some suggest had led to serious consequences for children.

In Virginia, a complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Education last year over the treatment of black students in local schools after a 13-year-old with disabilities was aggressively restrained by a school resource officer for allegedly clenching his hands into fists. A similar complaint was filed in Florida by the Southern Poverty Law Center, claiming that black students and those with disabilities were disproportionately arrested and subjected to police methods like pepper spray in schools.

Other instances include a widely publicized situation in South Carolina, in which a school resource officer flipped a student out of her chair after she refused to leave class after having been caught using her cellphone. And in Texas, video of an officer slamming a 12-year-old girl to the ground quickly spread across social media, also prompting calls from parents for the officer’s removal.

According to Nelson, the policy changes called for in the two bills introduced this month are a step in what proponents say is a positive direction.

AB 173, authored by Assemblyman Jones Sawyer, D-Los Angeles, requires school boards to adopt policies prohibiting school staff from calling a peace officer to arrest, discipline or otherwise interact with a child for a violation of school rules. Additionally, school personnel must exhaust all alternatives before involving an officer for low-level misconduct.

The bill also requires that school district’s collect and publicly report data regarding police interactions with students, and develop a procedure allowing parents to formally complain about officer misconduct.

Meanwhile, under AB 163, authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, school boards would be required to annually review their policy regarding the scope of police officer interactions with students, and consider how to reduce the presence of peace officers on campus as a condition of entering into or continuing an agreement with a local law enforcement agency.

Neither bill mandates that districts remove all police officers from schools, but rather, that school boards make a concerted effort to decrease the number of school resource officers–which currently hovers at approximately 19,000 nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Justice–and limit student contact with those that remain.

By tracking data regarding interactions between students and police, Nelson said schools will be able to better decide where they can make those cuts and divert funds toward increasing the number of school counselors and mental health services for students.

The most recent analysis of the latest Civil Rights Data Collection survey by the Council of Economic Advisors found that 1.6 million students across the country attend schools with police but no counselors–an imbalance these bills can help to address in California, according to Nelson.

“It’s important to send students the message that they’re scholars and not suspects,” Nelson said. “School staff should only call for law enforcement assistance when there is a real and immediate physical threat to students, staff or public safety, and that’s something present in both bills that we are very supportive of.”