Badged Bullies Belittling the Brazen: A Look into How School Resource Officers Contribute to the School-to-Prison Pipeline

by Marcus Alan McGhee
2015 Fellow, Program on Law and State Government
J.D. Candidate, 2016, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law
M.P.A., 2012, Northern Kentucky University
B.A., cum laude, 2010, Northern Kentucky University

Starting a few decades ago, school districts across the nation began to adopt and strictly adhere to zero-tolerance policies related to student behavior. [1] As a result, hundreds—if not thousands—of youth were funneled into the criminal justice system. [2] This over-criminalized reaction has been exacerbated by the presence of the school resource officers (“SROs”) [3] in some jurisdictions. Minor infractions once left to the resourcefulness of teachers or principals are now under the purview of in-house police officers. [4] As a result, more students are receiving the end-of-school designation of felon instead of high school graduate. [5] Of course, not all instances result in a conviction. Nonetheless, simply being arrested is sufficient to create a lasting record in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, the arrests discussed in this Article are not the ones of gun wielding deviants, but instead are those resulting from behavior most would argue typify adolescence: things like back talk and disobedience. [6] Indeed, after reading some arrest reports one might assume that the reports were drafted for mock trials instead of genuine criminal hearings: a fourteen-year-old arrested for texting, [7] a thirteen-year-old arrested for passing gas, [8] and a six-year-old arrested for throwing a temper tantrum. [9]

In one incident, when a teacher asked a 16-year-old female student at Spring Valley High School in Columbus, South Carolina to put away her cell phone and the student refused, tensions escalated quickly. The student defied orders from both the teacher and an administrator to leave the classroom, and an SRO was eventually called to effectuate her removal. [10] Many videos disseminated to various social media platforms, showed the SRO, Richland County Senior Sheriff Deputy Ben Fields, asking the student to leave. [11] At one point SRO Fields even attempted to guide the student’s arm upward to lead her out of her chair. [12] When the student rejected such assistance, freed her arm, and ultimately hit SRO Fields, his applied force increased exponentially. [13] SRO Fields seized the student’s left arm and simultaneously began curling his right arm around her neck, launching her backwards in the reverse c-shaped desk. [14] Once upside down, the student was temporarily caught in the mouth of the desk until SRO Fields, who maintained hold of her neck region, grabbed her pant leg and slingshotted her across the floor. [15] Finally dislodged from the desk, SRO Fields quickly moved toward the student, flipped her to her stomach, and placed her under arrest. [16] The female student, along with the student who recorded the ordeal, were arrested and charged with “disturbing school.” [17]

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott initially suspended Deputy Ben Fields and subsequently fired him on the Wednesday following the event. [18] However, not everyone rejoiced at the news of SRO Field’s firing. CNN producers Ralph Ellis and Jareen Imam reported that approximately 100 students at Spring Valley High School later walked out of classes in protest. [19] In a letter mailed home, Principal Jeff Temoney told parents of the incident. [20] In his statements to the students, Principal Temoney graciously accepted their message tied to the walkout, but nevertheless instructed the students to return to class to commence with the business of teaching and learning. [21]

After reviewing this incident, along with countless others where SROs resort to such extreme measures to obtain compliance, the question becomes whether schools are actually in the business of teaching and learning or whether they have effectively become authoritarian day prisons. Generally speaking, students are most impressionable during the early years of their life. [22] They have limited life experiences and, as a result, tend to view the world through a lens with an untainted prescription. [23] Society takes advantage of this malleability of the mind by insisting on general education, intended to sculpt more informed and morally-centered individuals. Unfortunately, this process does not occur without its own imperfections. Certain principles must be given additional attention, concepts must be revisited, and processes must be retooled to ensure proper assimilation given the specific audience.

However, amidst an education system teeming with zero-tolerance sponsors [24]and overzealous school resource officers, it is difficult to see how that additional attention or retooling is actually taking place—especially in the context of school discipline. School discipline has been effectively transferred from the schoolhouse to the prison house. Specifically, in-school discipline, which requires more one-on-one time with the student, appears to have been replaced for the expediency of police intervention. [25] This transition is clear as schools have ceased using such discipline and now pass the baton to law enforcement who hand out foreign nomenclature like “Miranda warning,” “due process,” and “search and seizure” as if they are speaking to seasoned criminals. What were once behavioral issues have morphed into criminal offenses. For example, what was formerly an outburst is now disorderly conduct; what was formerly a dress code violation is now lewd and lascivious behavior; and what was formerly adolescent posturing is now terroristic threatening. [26]

Judge Marilyn A. Moores of the Marion Superior Court, Juvenile Division warned of the dangers of over-criminalizing the classroom. In a letter to the county’s superintendents, she recounted that twenty-five percent of her caseload came from schools, and of those cases, eighty percent involved charges of criminal offenses that never made it to final disposition. [27] Judge Moores attributed this to the fact that students were being arrested for reasons falling outside the scope of the juvenile justice system—or disciplinary issues. [28] The purpose of the juvenile court, as she viewed it, is to address delinquent behavior that impacts public safety. To that end, she staunchly opposed being introduced into the disciplinary process at the respective schools, citing it to be both an inappropriate and ineffective method to address behavioral concerns. [30] She admitted that although such behavior may negatively impact the learning environment, it did not rise to the level of a public safety issue that would invoke one’s use of the juvenile justice system. [31] Judge Moores’ concern remained with the lives of youth drastically affected by the trauma of being arrested and processed, and less with the disciplinary issue. [32]

Judge Moores’ concern is valid. It is folly to think that saddling children with criminal records is not inimical to the educational process. Similarly, it is unwise to think that in-school police officers who seem beholden to brutality will inspire change and ward off rebellion. Indeed, current case law does little to dispel the notion that SROs are in schools to expedite the pathways to incarceration. The Indiana Supreme Court, for example, stated that “the school setting requires some easing of the restrictions to which searches by public authorities are ordinarily subject.” [33] Thus, officers acting as agents of a school for disciplinary purposes may stop a student to demand identification, [34] seize a student on an uncorroborated anonymous tip without reasonable articulable suspicion, [35] and conduct a pat-down search of a student without warrant or probable cause [36]—all of which would be unconstitutional for law-enforcement purposes. Yet, the distinction between SROs and law enforcement seems to become more complex. Although the court suggested it did not seek to blur an already-fine Fourth Amendment line between school discipline and law-enforcement duties, it did just that by recycling law enforcement language in the context of school disciplinary issues. [37] Furthermore, considering statutes like Indiana Code section 20-26-16-2, which permits school districts to create their own police departments, one can only wonder how transparent this Fourth Amendment line can become before its boundaries retain no normative connotations.

To address these issues, state and local governments should reevaluate the roles of SROs in school. One aspect of this reassessment centers on the training requirements of these officers. Currently, for example:

[Indiana’s] basic course for new police officers consists of over 600 hours of training in a variety of areas. Criminal and traffic law, firearms, emergency vehicle operations, physical tactics, EMS awareness and human behavior are some of the major areas of instruction during this course. A variety of other police related subjects such as accident investigation, criminal investigation, domestic violence and sexual assault, water rescue training, Standardized Field Sobriety Test, crime prevention and drug and narcotics are included in the areas an officer must study before graduating. [38]

Additionally, officers must complete forty hours of SRO training through a certified training program. [39] This additional training requires instruction regarding skills, tactics, and strategies for school campuses and school building security needs and characteristics. [40] Oddly enough, the forty hours of SRO training does not seek to understand the population in which it serves. Although the training prepares the officers to handle scenarios typically experienced while patrolling the streets, this training does little to enlighten the officers about the challenges they will face once they enter the schoolhouse.

Current SRO training requirements should be adjusted to protect not only the physical assets but the human ones as well. [41] Specifically, new legislation should “[r]equire[] all law enforcement training academies to include instruction on youth and adolescent development, age appropriate interactions, and de-escalation techniques as part of basic training curriculums.” [42] Furthermore, the statute should include instruction regarding: (1) SRO roles and responsibilities as defined by written school policy; (2) differences between disciplinary infractions and criminal conduct; (3) differences between administrative sanctions and criminal penalties; (4) child and adolescent development; (5) age appropriate interactions; (6) age appropriate responses to disciplinary or criminal conduct; (7) conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques; (8) identification of abuse and neglect; (9) behaviors associated with abuse or neglect; (10) resources available to victims of abuse or neglect; (11) explanation of learning disabilities, emotional issues, and behavioral disabilities; (12) legal protections available to students who receive special education services; (13) bias free policing; (14) cultural sensitivity and awareness; (15) adverse consequences of criminal prosecution; (16) local youth services; and (17) mental health services.

There are a myriad of different options available to rupture and sever the school-to-prison pipeline permanently. One option is to require additional training for SROs. Although the issues arising from criminally charging students for behavioral issues were once seen as peripheral and harmless, they are now more aggressive and should now be at the forefront of concerns. Additional training requirements would bring the students back to the center of the school system and remove them from the purview of the justice system as it relates to disciplinary issues. Such training would work toward keeping students retained in schools as opposed to detained in the juvenile justice system.

[1] See Karega Rausch & Russell Skiba, Unplanned Outcomes: Suspensions and Expulsions in Indiana, 2 Educ. Pol’y Briefs 1, 2 (2004).

[2] Id.

[3] The federal Community Oriented Policing Services (“COPS”) program defines “school resource officer” as:

[A] career law enforcement officer, with sworn authority, deployed in community-oriented policing, and assigned by the employing police department or agency to work in collaboration with schools and community-based organizations—(A) to address crime and disorder problems, gangs, and drug activities affecting or occurring in or around an elementary or secondary school; (B) to develop or expand crime prevention efforts for students; (C) to educate likely school-age victims in crime prevention and safety; (D) to develop or expand community justice initiatives for students; (E) to train students in conflict resolution, restorative justice, and crime awareness; (F) to assist in the identification of physical changes in the environment that may reduce crime in or around the school; and (G) to assist in developing school policy that addresses crime and to recommend procedural changes.

42 U.S.C. § 3796dd-8 (2012).

[4] See Rausch & Skiba, supra note 1, at 2.

[5] See, e.g., infra notes 7-9.

[6] Id.

[7] Sharif Durhams, Tosa East Student Arrested, Fined After Repeated Texting, Milwaukee J. Sentinel, Feb. 18, 2009, at B8, available at []. In this incident, a SRO arrested a fourteen-year-old girl for text messaging in school. Id. The girl refused to stop text messaging after her teacher asked her to stop. Id. The student was arrested and given a $298 fine for disorderly conduct. Id.

[8] Udi Ofer, Criminalizing the Classroom: The Risk of Aggressive Policing and Zero Tolerance Discipline in New York City Public Schools, 56 N.Y. L. Sch. L. Rev. 1373, 1377 n.13 (2012) (noting a report that a SRO arrested a thirteen-year-old boy in Florida for passing gas in school and turning off a classmate’s computer, and that the boy was later charged with disruption of a school function).

[9] Bob Herbert, 6-Year-Olds Under Arrest, N.Y. Times, Apr. 9, 2007, at A17, available at []. In this incident, police officers handcuffed and arrested six-year-old Desre’e Watson for throwing a temper tantrum in kindergarten class. Id. According to the police department, “Watson was upset and crying and wailing and would not leave the classroom to let them study, causing a disruption of the normal class activities.” Id. The officers took Desre’e to central booking, fingerprinted, photographed, and charged her with battery against a school official—a felony—, and two misdemeanors. Id.

[10] South Carolina School Officer Fired After Violent Arrest of Female Student Captured on Video, KTLA (Oct. 28, 2015, 9:16 AM), [] [hereinafter South Carolina School Officer].

[11] FBI to Lead Investigation of Violent Incident at Spring Valley High School, WISTV (Oct. 26, 2015, 4:20 PM), [].

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] South Carolina School Officer, supra note 10.

[19] Ralph Ellis & Jareen Imam, South Carolina Students Protest Firing of School Resource Officer, CNN (Oct. 31, 2015, 12:51 PM), [].

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] See Rachel Nuwer, Teenage Brains Are like Soft, Impressionable Play-Doh, Smithsonian (Oct. 18, 2012), [].

[23] See generally id.

[24] Zero tolerance policies are school discipline policies that create mandatory punishments for specific offenses. See S. David Mitchell, Zero Tolerance Policies: Criminalizing Childhood and Disenfranchising the Next Generation of Citizens, 92 Wash. U. L. Rev. 271, 277 (2014). Under so-called “zero tolerance” policies, schools do not make exceptions or substitute punishments under any circumstances. Id. The result is often severe punishment for any breach of a rule, regardless of how minor or whether there are extenuating circumstances. Id.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Letter from Marilyn A. Moores, Judge, Marion Superior Court Juvenile Div., to Superintendents, Marion County, Indiana (Jan. 30, 2015) (on file with the author).

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 340 (1985).

[34] D.L. v. State, 877 N.E.2d 500, 505–06 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007).

[35] T.S. v. State, 863 N.E.2d 362, 376–77 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007).

[36] C.S. v. State, 735 N.E.2d 273, 276 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000); D.B. v. State, 728 N.E.2d 179, 181 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000).

[37] See generally K.W. v. State, 984 N.E.2d 610, 613 (Ind. 2013).

[38] Basic Training – Tier 1,, [] (last visited Dec. 17, 2015); see also Ind. Code § 5-2-1-9 (2015).

[39] Ind. Code § 20-26-18.2(b) (2015).

[40] Id.

[41] Id.

[42] H.B. 1596, 119th Gen. Assemb., 1st Reg. Sess. (Ind. 2015).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s