Obama Administration Urges Schools to Limit Police Force

Published October 28, 2016

The Obama administration sent letters to colleges, universities, and K-12 school districts declaring how they may use law enforcement officers in educational environments.

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) announced in a press release in September the DOE and the U.S. Department of Justice had released “new tools to improve school climates, ensure safety, and support student achievement in our nation’s schools.”

In a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to schools, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King said, “I know that many of you, like me, have become increasingly concerned about school-based law-enforcement officers’ involvement in the administration of school discipline in many of our Nation’s schools. While these officers—commonly known as school resource officers (SROs)—can help provide a positive and safe learning environment and build trust between students and law enforcement officials in some situations, I am concerned about the potential for violations of students’ civil rights and unnecessary citations or arrests of students in schools, all of which can lead to the unnecessary and harmful introduction of children and young adults into a school-to-prison pipeline.”

In a DOE press advisory announcing the release of the guidelines, King said, “School resource officers can be valuable assets in creating a positive school environment and keeping kids safe. But we must ensure that school discipline is being handled by trained educators, not by law enforcement officers.”

The Washington Post reported the directive “amounts to guidance from the federal government, which has little say in how and whether local school districts use law enforcement officers unless a civil rights complaint is filed, triggering a federal investigation. But agencies will have to follow the guidance in order to qualify for federal grants that pay for the hiring of about 100 to 150 school resource officers each year.”

‘Hamstrung by Policies’

Scott Erickson, president of Americans in Support of Law Enforcement, says such regulatory policies hinder educators’ ability to discipline students.

“Police officers can and should play an important role in our nation’s schools, both as maintainers of safety and order but also as public ambassadors advancing positive relationships between police officers and our nation’s youth,” Erickson said. “When teachers and school administrators are hamstrung by policies that virtually rob them of any control over the behavior of disrupting students, they are forced to abdicate that responsibility to local police.”

Questions on Discrimination

The DOE statement says the release of the most recent materials “builds on the Obama administration’s work with states and districts to improve discipline practices and climate in the nation’s schools,” including a 2014 School Climate and Discipline Guidance Package citing “schools’ civil rights obligation to not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin in the administration of school discipline.”

Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Goldwater Institute, says the premise behind the administration’s directive is flawed. 

“What they are trying to address is that there are reports that minority students are being disciplined more than their peers,” Butcher said. “Obviously, if there is some discrimination going on, that’s terrible. That should stop, without question. However, if you say that we need to even-out the percentages of students of different ethnic backgrounds of who get disciplined, that’s ludicrous. You’re disciplining someone for what they did, not the color of their skin.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Internet Info:

John B. King, Jr., Secretary SRO Letter, September 8, 2016: https://heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/doe-dear-colleague-letter-on-police-in-schools