The Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) have issued non-binding regulatory guidance regarding law-enforcement officers’ involvement in the administration of school discipline. The new guidance, accompanied by “Dear Colleague” letters, come in light of recent violent episodes between school resource officers (SROs) and students that have prompted debate about whether police officers are arresting children too often or applying unnecessary force.
In the DOE letter, Secretary of Education John King first noted that SROs can provide a safe and positive learning environment for students. However, the letter goes on to advise that schools should, where possible, eliminate SRO-related discipline policies and practices that may harm young people and “needlessly contribute to their involvement with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
The DOJ’s letter was addressed to law enforcement officers, reminding all SROs that they could and should be positive role models and mentors for students. However, if SROs are not properly hired, trained, evaluated, and integrated into the school community, or if they are given responsibilities more appropriately carried out by educators, negative outcomes are more likely, including violations of students’ civil rights. The DOJ, therefore, stressed the importance of law enforcement and education leaders to do everything possible to directly address these concerns and reduce the potential for problems.
To that end, the DOE and DOJ released the Safe, School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding, and Respect (SECURe) Rubric to assist districts in improving SRO-related policy and practice. The SECURe Rubric includes five action steps to ensure that SROs are incorporated responsibly into a school learning environment:
- Create sustainable partnerships and formalize MOUs among school districts, local law enforcement agencies, juvenile justice entities, and civil rights and community stakeholders. DOE advised that any Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between a school district and law enforcement agency should require training for officers working in schools and explicitly state that their proper role is not to administer ordinary discipline. Additionally, MOUs should require the public reporting of data on law enforcement activities inside schools, and give schools a way to request the removal of a specific officer. Finally, MOUs should outline a regular process for reviewing and revising the MOU, and give community members and civil rights organizations a say in that process.
- Ensure that MOUs meet constitutional and statutory civil rights requirements. DOE places particular emphasis on incorporating state and federal civil rights protections, including prohibitions against discrimination. Additionally, DOE recommends that any SRO partnership include a mechanism for submitting and investigating complaints against SROs. Finally, DOE recommends collecting data to regularly evaluate and revise policies to ensure SRO partnerships are carried out in a manner consistent with civil rights and anti-discrimination laws.
- Recruit and hire effective SROs and school personnel. DOE recommends that all school districts draft hiring guidelines for SROs. Among other things, schools should seek out SROs who demonstrate an ability to work effectively with young people, an understanding of developmentally appropriate discipline, and strong communication skills. Schools with existing programs should maintain ongoing training programs to address, among other things, constitutional and civil rights, adolescent development, and restorative justice techniques.
- Keep your SROs and school personnel well trained. School districts should include in any MOU with police departments a requirement that SROs engage in ongoing training and refresher programs. Additionally, schools should train their own personnel not to call upon SROs to address non-violent or non-threatening disciplinary matters. DOE also recommends school districts involve SROs in school life activities to improve trust and relationships between students, faculty, and SROs.
- Continually evaluate SROs and school personnel, and recognize good performance. DOE recommends implementing a comprehensive performance evaluation system documents trainings provided and capabilities schools expect staff to demonstrate, Districts should include in any evaluation each officer’s ability to de-escalate and use alternative disciplinary actions to prevent citations, ticketing, and arrests. School districts should also create a mechanism to collect feedback from students, families, and peers, and other school staff for SRO and school staff evaluations.
The SECURe Rubric contains slightly different advice for schools entering into their first MOU with a law enforcement agency, compared to those districts that have already entered into MOUs but are looking to improve their SROs performance. One theme that ran through each step above was the importance of collecting data on SROs, from training, to the frequency of their use in schools, to the number of arrests made.
The SECURe Rubric is non-regulatory guidance, and therefore not binding on school districts. However, as more and more school districts look to improve the relationship between their SROs and student populations, the SECURe Rubric provides a very useful starting point for any agreement, whether a district is first entering one or implementing improvements. We will continue to provide updates as DOE issues new guidance.