One of the final questions in a packed Rolesville town hall on school policing came from a small middle school student named Caleb. In a navy blue jacket, he cautiously stood up and addressed the room full of adults, including the Wake County sheriff and Rolesville mayor.
Why, he began, should school resource officers be trained to interact with students of color differently than their peers?
“I heard one of you guys say that you have to teach school resource officers how to treat minorities. But why do you have to treat minorities differently than you treat anyone else? Using myself as an example, I’m a straight A student,” he said to rising applause. “And obviously I’m a minority. But I don’t understand why you need to treat me differently than you do anyone else."
James Ford, a former North Carolina Teacher of the Year and a panel moderator, jumped in.
“The truth is, we have different histories, Caleb," he began. "We’ve always been treated differently. So there has to be a particular emphasis when dealing with people of color, African Americans in particular, because of their different histories. With law enforcement, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, the list goes on. You look at any of those categories we are always treated differently. There’s a difference between treating everyone the same, and treating everyone fairly."
Though Caleb was certainly one of the youngest question-askers in attendance, he brought up an issue that many sought clarity on: the role of school resource officers and their interactions with minority students in particular. The panel discussion, which was organized by Wake County Commissioner Jessica Holmes, came as a direct response to a viral video released this year showing a Roseville High student being violently slammed to the ground by a school police officer.
The video caused widespread outrage among community members and led to an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigations. It also galvanized local activists, who have long argued that school police officers engage in discriminatory disciplinary practices. In 2014, a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of a handful of black students contended the Wake County Public School District strongly relied on "unregulated school policing practices," resulting in "routine violation of students' educational and constitutional rights."Holmes said she put together the panel in response to the video and community concerns about officers in schools. Other panel members included Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison, Wake County School Board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler, Wake County Juvenile Court Judge Craig Croom, and Rolesville Mayor Frank Eagles.
The panelists offered a range of opinions on the role and future of police officers in schools. Harrison, for instance, said he would prefer to have his deputies removed from the program, citing inconsistency in the school resource officer program.
"You got 185,000 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.”
Meanwhile, activists on the other end of the spectrum are pushing to remove police officers from schools altogether, beginning with a fifty percent reduction over the next year. Last month, Letha Muhammed, a parent organizer with the Education Justice Alliance, told the INDY the organization would like to see resource officers replaced with counselors.
"We'd like to see restorative justice programs put into the schools," she said. "We'd like to see something like peacekeepers, which is a community-based model to help resolve conflict within the school system."
But Holmes had a different take.
“I’m not pulling school resources officers from schools in today’s society. That is not what I want to do, because we are in a society of Columbines and school shootings," she said. "I would never want to be in a situation where I am responsible for removing school resource officers who are there to protect students. And somehow we got into a position where they ended up in a position to discipline students."
The burden of disciplining students should not fall on the shoulders of school resource officers, Roseville Mayor Frank Eagles added.
"What I'm hearing is Wake County Schools need to give the teachers and principals the authority to do the discipline they have lost," he said. "And it's been dumped on the resource officers to take over. And that's not what they're there for."
When schools expand the the work of SROs to take on a disciplinary role, Holmes added, “that’s when you get the school to prison pipeline."
After the panelists spoke, audience members had a chance to ask questions about a range of issues, including the data collection process of school use of force incidents, implicit bias in policing, and SRO training practices in the wake of the Roseville incident.
Diane Whitaker, who has a son at a local high school, said she came to the meeting because she is a concerned parent. Whitaker told the INDY she works in the criminal justice system and has become acquainted with its biases and failures. She also worries about the safety of her son, and hopes the conversation ignited by Holmes will continue.
"My son is a smart kid," she said. "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. And I know there are a lot of parents who have these same worries. I just want to know what I can do to make a difference not just for my son, but for other kids."