In January, a disturbing video made the rounds on social media. It showed a school resource officer, Ruben De Los Santos, slamming a fifteen-year-old Roseville High student to the ground. The viral video thrust North Carolina into the national spotlight once again, triggered widespread outrage, and galvanized local activists seeking broad system reform.
Nearly two months later, however, there doesn't appear to be much consensus about what's next. Parents are still demanding answers, activists are calling for a total removal of cops from schools, and yet it's unclear what, if any, tangible reforms will actually take place.
These perspectives were all on display at a town hall meeting with Wake County leaders last week. The discussion, which was convened by county commissioner Jessica Holmes in response to the Rolesville video, included Sheriff Donnie Harrison, school board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler, juvenile court judge Craig Croom, and Rolesville mayor Frank Eagles. Many audience members sought clarity on the role of school resource officers and their interactions with minority students in particular. Critics say the presence of SROs presence worsens the school-to-prison pipeline, which funnels public school students into the juvenile justice system, thanks to zero-tolerance behavioral policies.
The panelists offered a range of opinions on the role of police officers in schools. There was some consensus: they agreed that schools should invest more in social workers, counselors, and nurses, and that SROs should be responsible for protecting—not disciplining—students.
But, absent viable plans for reform, "I didn't walk away feeling, like wow, something's gonna really happen," Letha Muhammed, a parent organizer with the Education Justice Alliance, told the INDY.
But the outrage is there, particularly from parents who feel the presence of SROs compromises their children's safety. One father of four stood up during the panel's Q-and-A session and asked, voice shaking: "What is being done to make sure this doesn't happen again? How will you keep our kids safe?"
Those calls have not yet yielded concrete answers. But Muhammed and other activists have a distinct request. They're calling on the district to remove all police officers from schools, beginning with a 50 percent reduction over the next year. They also want to see the district invest in school counselors, psychologists, and other community workers trained to de-escalate conflicts between students.
"We're really looking at a peacekeeper model that they use in other districts and juvenile court systems, where there are trained people who are not police officers who have the proper training to intervene in any situation," she says.
An SRO-free school system is highly unlikely in an era of school shootings, Commissioner Holmes—a staff attorney for the N.C. Association of Educators—conceded.
"I'm not pulling school resources officers from schools in today's society," she said at the forum. "That is not what I want to do, because we are in a society of Columbines and school shootings. I would never want to be in a situation where I am responsible for removing school resource officers who are there to protect students. Somehow we got into a position where they ended up in a position to discipline students."
Holmes later told the INDY that she favors maintaining the current number of SROs, while using any additional resources to "focus on the nurses, social workers, and counselors." She also wants to see additional training for SROs and to clarify principals' roles as schools' chief disciplinarians.
That's how the system is designed to work: SROs are not supposed to discipline students. According to Wake County Public Schools spokeswoman Lisa Luten, school administrators are the only sanctioned arbiters of discipline.
But Eagles, Rolesville's mayor, says SROs are asked to engage in disciplinary practices regardless of formal policy. "[Teachers] turn to the resource officers to do the discipline," he says. "Here's an example. I talked to a resource officer last week. A teacher walked into the school cafeteria, he told the boy, 'You're not supposed to be here.' The boy said, 'I'm not going to leave.' The teacher then said, 'Officer, make that boy leave.' The teachers and principals try to get the resource officers, law enforcement officers, to do the discipline, and I've been told that they've been encouraged to do that."
Those conflicting mandates have added complexity to a system Harrison says already lacks consistency, with various law enforcement agencies present in Wake County public schools. To ease that burden, he's calling for the creation of a Wake County Public Schools police force.
"You got one hundred eighty-five thousand people in the schools, and you got twelve chiefs running the schools," he said. "There's no way there's consistency. Every time something happens in a school, fingers are pointed at the police officer. That's because we don't have any consistency whatsoever. The principals at each school have their own way of doing something."
That's little comfort to parents seeking concrete solutions to a protocol they believe disproportionately targets students of color. Diane Whittaker, who stopped by the town hall and has a son at a local high school, often worries about her son's safety.
"He's a smart kid," she says. "He plays sports. He always does the right thing. But I always still worry about him, because he is a child of color. He wears hoodies. You feel like you have to coach your kids to try to keep them from getting killed or hurt."
Holmes thinks last week's meeting was a positive first step. "It was a very raw conversation, from the panelists to the audience," she says. But "there were areas of consensus, and that's a good place to start."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Stalemate"