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Does Police Presence Make Schools Safer

With students throughout Nebraska back in school following the holiday break, parents may find themselves concerned about reports of violence or other incidents at their children's schools.

Many schools in Nebraska and around the country are staffed with police officers in attempt to create safer environments. According to statistics from the Department of Education, law enforcement officers were present in 10 percent of public schools in the U.S. at least once per week in 1997. By 2014, 30 percent of public schools had a school resource officer (SRO). But does having police in schools automatically mean they are safer?

Police can escalate school incidents

Many parents, community members and civil rights activists have posed the question whether schools are safer by having police officers present full time. Studies examining the question have produced conflicting results. According to a June 2013 Congressional Research Service report produced in response to Sandy Hook, schools with sworn law enforcement officers were more likely to be patrolled, investigate student crime leads and possess emergency plans. But the research "does not address whether SRO programs deter school shootings, one of the key reasons for renewed congressional interest in these programs," the report states.

Some complain that a police presence often exacerbates what normally would be routine disruptions. They argue that police punish children for small infractions and frequently treat what could be called "typical teenage behavior" as criminal activity. An SRO at Millard South High School in Omaha was investigated (and eventually exonerated ) after cell phone video recordings in December 2015 showed him repeatedly punching a 17-year-old student while trying to break up a fight. One student was arrested in that incident.

One thing is for certain: whether dealing with students regarding possession of alcohol or drugs, fighting, possession of a weapon, theft, vandalism or a number of other matters, research by Washington University Law Review shows the presence of an SRO increases the likelihood that a student will be referred to law enforcement and possibly face criminal charges.

Proper student response to police

In response to increased interest on the topic of police and student interaction in schools, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) produced a quick-read guide on understanding one's rights in these situations. "When you interact with the police in school, be respectful. But don't be afraid to assert your rights," the report states. It provides these important insights:

  • A police officer should never harass or bully a student, or make fun of a personal characteristic, like race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.
  • Police officers should also never use more force than is reasonable. Tasing, use of pepper spray, handcuffing or causing an injury can all qualify as excessive use of force.
  • If you are allowed to use your phone at school, you are also allowed to take pictures or record video of on-duty police in public areas at your school as long as you don't interfere with what they're doing.
  • You can ask to have a lawyer, a parent or another adult present before you are questioned. If you talk, your words can still be used against you, but it's the best way to protect your rights.
  • You do not have to allow police to look at your cell phone. If you decline their request to do so, police must obtain a warrant before they can.

If you have been arrested in connection with a school incident, or if you are the parent of a child who has been arrested, it is wise to enlist the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.

Source: Congressional Research Service

Source: American Civil Liberties Union

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