At 6-years-old, children begin to understand the concept of numbers, knowing day from night and left from right.
And for a 6-year-old girl in Orlando, Florida, she was trying to understand why she was being arrested for misdemeanor battery.
On Sept. 19, 2019, Kaia Rolle, a first grader, was sitting at a table, coloring with crayons, when two police officers walked in to arrest her. As they zip-tied her hands, she wailed in desperation. “No … no, don’t put handcuffs on!” she said.
After the officers led her out of her elementary school, she said, “Please, give me a second chance.” The officers proceeded to put her in the police car. She was taken to a juvenile center to be fingerprinted and got a mugshot.
Earlier that day, Rolle threw a tantrum because she wanted to wear her sunglasses. She began pulling on her classroom door and screaming. The assistant principal then took Rolle to his office, where she began to hit and kick him.
At this point, the assistant principal called the school’s student resource officer over, and he attempted to calm Rolle down. After about ten minutes, Rolle calmed down.
By the time the officers walked in to arrest Rolle, she was sitting in the office, calm and reading books and coloring with crayons.
The officers that arrested Rolle were student resource officers at her school, Lucious & Emma Nixon Academy. Officer Dennis Turner, the main arresting officer, was fired days after news of the arrest went public.
According to the National Center for Education’s statistics about Crime, Violence, Discipline, and Safety, U.S. Public Schools 45% of public schools had SROs during the 2017-2018 school year. Another 35% of public schools had some sworn type of law enforcement officer or security personnel.
But, schools weren’t always like this.
Police began emerging in schools in the 1990’s, when schools attempted to cut down on serious crimes by implementing zero tolerance policies. These policies caused harsh punishments and even arrests for minor issues.
After the Columbine High School shooting, the number of police officers in schools skyrocketed.
Although these School Resource Officers (SROs) were initially put in schools to prevent school shootings, they are now commonly known for being responsible for general safety and crime prevention in schools.
Mo Canady, the Executive Director of the National Association of Student Resource Officers (NASRO), said, “A misconception is that we’re just there to defend the school against an active shooter situation. Well, most schools are never going to face an active shooter incident. So you know, are we really there for something that’s probably never going to happen? We have to be trained and prepared to respond to that. But, we’re there for so much more. It’s a community based policing approach.”
NASRO is a nonprofit organization that provides training to SROs, holding classes and conferences around the nation. A SRO’s participation in NASRO is completely voluntary, as it is member-based.
As of 2020, there are more than 3,000 NASRO members around the world. However, this number is still only a small fraction of SROs and police officers in schools across the country.
Canady said, “I wish that every SRO in this country came to our training and learned to do the job the way we espouse the job should be done. I think we would rarely see a story about someone wanting to remove an SRO. I think that if everyone came through our training, I think most schools would see the value and would want an SRO. I firmly believe that.”
Officers who choose to be a member of NASRO have the opportunity to gain greater distinction. Upon receiving advanced training from NASRO and meeting certain criteria, SROs can become a “NASRO Practitioner.” However, NASRO only trains officers, not certifying them at all. Certification would constitute an expiration date, renewal requirement, or a revocation procedure if misconduct were to occur.
Currently, in the U.S., there are no specific requirements SROs must fulfill before serving in schools. Prospective SROs must simply be a sworn, career law enforcement officer. There is no other national regulation; each individual police department and school district establish their own protocols.
The School District of Clayton has two SROs: Officer Jack Boeger at Wydown Middle School and Officer Herman Whittaker at Clayton High School.
Both officers have taken the NASRO basic 40-hour SRO course, which discusses topics ranging from the teenage brain to understanding special needs students. Officers Boeger and Whittaker also underwent a screening process before being appointed to their respective schools.
Clayton Police Chief, Mark Smith, said, “[Officer Boeger and Whittaker] had to volunteer for the job. We want people who want to be school resource officers. We want them to want to work with kids, and with staff and parents. They also go through an interview process. We evaluate their background, we look at their personnel file, make sure that they have an appropriate background to go over there and we do assessments. Finally, when we pick that officer, we make sure the school is comfortable with them.”
Both officers have to meet the goals that the Clayton Police Department defines for a SRO.
Chief Smith said, “Their main role is to keep the school safe. It’s also important that the SROs foster positive relationships with the students. We want to pick officers who can build trust with the students, because sometimes they actually deal with problems that students may have at home. We want them to be good role models for the students.”
Officer Whittaker is in his fourth year as the SRO at CHS. Throughout his time, Whittaker has cherished the positive relationships he’s formed with students.
“My job is to build relationships. Here, I’m able to see development. On the street, you’re pretty much going from call to call. You are getting to see some of the things that you’ve helped with. But, here, you see it every day. So, you see the hard work that you put in into the students, and it’s fulfilling.”
CHS athletics and activities director, T’Shon Young emphasized Officer Whittaker’s support of students.
Young said, “He has more of an impact than he or others may know. Black men and police officers do not go well together. Many of our Black students, families, and even staff are harassed by police officers. Officer Whittaker is definitely making ground and proving that all officers are not misled. He is definitely a positive role model for a lot of our students, and not just our black students. You see him not just doing his job, but actually engaging with students and showing a genuine interest in them and their well being. […] He is highly engaged with our Black Student Union. He comes to the meetings and supports all the efforts.”
Along with a SRO’s ability to form relationships with students, successful SRO’s possess a certain temperament.
It takes a unique personality, and individual and skill set to do this particular job. […] We’re talking about putting officers in an environment with our most valuable commodity, which is our youth. Really, our future.”
— Mo Canady
Director Canady said, “It takes a unique personality, and individual and skill set to do this particular job. […] We’re talking about putting officers in an environment with our most valuable commodity, which is our youth. Really, our future.”
When SROs aren’t the right fit for the position or lose sight of their broader mission, problems can arise.
In the case of Kaia Rolle, the 6-year-old, her main arresting officer, SRO Dennis Turner, was plagued by a long list of disciplinary actions. Throughout his 20 year tenure as an officer, Turner was disciplined seven times for violating department policy. Previously, his youngest arrest had been a 7-year-old boy.
Officers are in agreement that cases like Kaia Rolle’s should not be occurring.
“As a father of a 7-year-old, I just can’t imagine someone doing that to my son,” said Officer Whittaker. “That’s a difficult question, as a father and officer, for someone who gets there to protect. You’re there to help but ultimately put yourself in a position where you restrain a student, a 7-year-old with handcuffs. He overstepped his boundaries… Yeah, that’s very upsetting.”
Director Canady said, “Good SROs don’t make a lot of arrests. I was actually at a table today with six SROs from Montana. And I asked all of them, I said, How many arrests did you make during the last school year? The answer: zero. Six SROs, zero arrests. Now, that’s not because we ignore crimes that happen. And sometimes, unfortunately, a situation does have to end in an arrest. But a carefully selected, specifically trained SRO, we teach them other strategies, how to de-escalate situations, how to work with the school administration. […] I can speak to that myself. I was a SRO for 12 years. I didn’t arrest five students in those 12 years.”
When SROs overstep their boundaries or become harmful to students, it is crucial that these officers be addressed, whether it be through disciplinary action or removal from the school.
Director Canady said, “Let’s suppose that we mess up on that front end and put the wrong person in. As a former SRO supervisor, I’ve made that mistake twice. Then, we have to do our due diligence in getting that person out of that position. We can’t leave a problem person in. It’s the most high profile position in law enforcement. The SROs are going to be the most well known officers in their community. […] So, it has to be the right person.”
With publicized cases of SRO misconduct and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, opposition to a police presence in schools has been mounting. Many argue that SROs should be replaced with mental health experts or more guidance counselors.
However, Canady said, “Replacing the SRO with anything is a mistake. We’re talking about apples and oranges. A psychologist, social worker, is not a law enforcement officer; and an enforcement officer is not a social worker, or psychologist, but we need each other desperately… When I was an SRO, if it had not been for our social workers, and our school district, there’s no way that I or the other people working around me would have been nearly as effective in our roles. They were our teammates. One does not cancel out the other.”
Some schools have shifted away from SROs. St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) doesn’t utilize SROs. Instead, they have their own safety officer team, which is run by the district. None of the safety officers are licensed police officers.
Dr. Michael Brown, the SLPS Deputy Superintendent, explained that the district’s safety officers go through de-escalation training and work closely with school social workers. Many of them have also fostered close bonds with students.
“Those relationships provide an opportunity for students to have someone to talk to. And sometimes when they’re on the fence, someone that can talk them off that fence,” said Dr. Brown.
These relationships are key to stopping the pipeline to prison: a national phenomenon where students are being pushed out of public schools and into the criminal justice system.
When a student is suspended or expelled, their chances of dropping out increase drastically, and once a student drops out, they are more likely to be involved in crime later in life.
Jason Jabbari, a Washington University in St. Louis Data Analyst and co-author of several research papers on the school-to-prison pipeline explained that social exclusion increases under the carceral system in schools:
“At first, with in-school suspension, you’re excluded from your classmates. Out-of school-suspension, you’re excluded from your school environment. When you’re dropped out, you’re excluded from mainstream educational institutions and are typically not in college, when you drop out when you’re incarcerated now. […] So, the odds of being excluded tend to increase.”
According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, the amount of out of school suspension has doubled since the 1970’s and has been on the rise ever since.
But, that doesn’t mean kids are misbehaving more. The same source says that crime rates for children ages 10-17 have been decreasing.
However, discipline rates differ with race. Students of color are disciplined at a much higher rate than their white counterparts.
Injustices against people of color in the criminal justice system start as early as preschool. A 2015 University of Los Angeles California study found that Missouri ranked first in the nation in racial disparities of elementary school suspension.
The study said, “Statewide, elementary schools in Missouri suspended 14.4 percent of their black students at least once in 2011-12 compared to 1.8 percent of white students.”
And these suspensions aren’t just harming the suspended students, they are harming their peers as well.
Jabbari says, “We wanted to deploy a similar strategy to look at the collateral damages of suspensions. We found that students that attend high suspension schools are less likely to enroll in advanced math courses. They’re less likely to have higher math achievement and less likely to attend college.”
School districts are re-evaluating what student discipline looks like. In particular, schools are moving away from a reliance on suspending and expelling students.
In 2016, SLPS adopted a new student discipline code, encouraging the use of restorative discipline and trauma-informed practices. In addition, SLPS banned out-of-school suspensions for students in preschool through second grade.
We, as officers, really need to do a better job of reaching out, communicating, building positive relationships, getting out in the community, and showing that, hey, I’m human, I’m just like you.”
— Officer Whittaker
Dr. Brown said, “For the rest of the grades [three through twelve], we do suspensions, but we’re really trying to put a lot of positive things within the schools, so that we’re reinforcing a positive behavior, rather than the negative reinforcements. Sometimes suspensions can be just a kid having a bad day. So, let’s wait until tomorrow and see what happens. A lot of kids will come back the next day and say to you, Hey, I was having a bad day. I apologize. Thanks for not suspending me. It won’t happen again.”
As calls for police reform in schools across the nation increase, sometimes the simplest solutions can be the most effective.
Officer Whittaker said, “We, as officers, really need to do a better job of reaching out, communicating, building positive relationships, getting out in the community, and showing that, hey, I’m human, I’m just like you. You are able to see me as a person and look past the uniform. And the police officer should be able to look at a person who’s walking down the street as a human being, as a person, not as a suspect. Once we’re able to do that, we’ll make a positive change.”