Cops, schools walk fine line confronting problem students

Central High School Principal Mary Mackbee
Central High School Principal Mary Mackbee talked about school safety issues at the St. Paul Public Schools administration building Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2015. Behind her, from left, is Superintendent Valeria Silva, Harding High School Principal Doug Revsbeck and Como Park Senior High School Principal Theresa Neal.
Riham Feshir | MPR News

St. Paul Police Officer Mark Ross says cops working in schools can detect fights and gang activity coming on days before they happen, and they know some groups of students should not be around others.

But gathering that intelligence can be easier than getting agreement on how to respond.

"Sometimes what the school district wants and expects — and what the police department wants and expects — those things aren't always 100 percent parallel and sometimes even conflict a little bit, which is where you really have to problem-solve," said Ross, treasurer of the St. Paul Police Federation and a former a school resource officer at Como Park High School.

Recent police-student confrontations in Minnesota and across the country are renewing debate over how best to respond to violence, or the threat of violence, in schools. Police and school leaders aren't always on the same page.

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Some observers say high-profile school violence in recent years has changed the rules and that knucklehead student behavior once dismissed with strong words or a call home now demands a police response.

It's complicated, too, because school resource officers work for law enforcement and school districts. Uniformed officers participate in everyday activities, but they can't intervene in minor disciplinary incidents. Officers stationed inside schools also effectively serve as confidants, social workers and mentors.

S.C. officer attempts to remove student
In this Monday, Oct, 26, 2015 photo made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student, Senior Deputy Ben Fields tries to forcibly remove a student who refused to leave her high school math class, in Columbia S.C. The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday after Fields flipped the student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor.

School resource officers have been in the spotlight recently after a South Carolina sheriff's deputy was seen in a cell phone video flipping a student from her desk and dragging her across the floor. The FBI has been asked to investigate that incident and on Wednesday the deputy was fired.

In north Minneapolis earlier this week, a school resource officer arrested a 16-year-old for bringing a .38-caliber handgun to Patrick Henry High School with the intent to "shoot someone with it after class." The student was overheard telling other students about his plans and it was discovered hidden in his locker.

Last month, a school resource officer pepper-sprayed a group of students to break up a large fight at Como Park High School.

And at St. Paul's Central High School last week, a school resource officer used a Taser to stun and arrest a Central High School student for "obstructing legal process with force and disorderly conduct" according to the incident report. The student had apparently resisted leaving the building after being suspended.

The South Carolina incident and the Twin Cities incidents were very different but they shared a common thread: They all got a confrontational response from police.

"School resource officers are increasingly being brought in to deal with issues that were traditionally student discipline issues — violations of school rules as opposed to violations of the law," said Teresa Nelson, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota. "We're seeing a rapid criminalization of students for behavior that violates school rules is now being cast as obstruction, or disorderly conduct or criminal."

The majority of Minnesota schools have school resource officers on campus every day. Police departments contract with the schools to designate officers for full- and part-time school positions.

A study by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety published in 2014 says 38 percent of law enforcement agencies employ one or more SROs, totaling 315 officers.

Minnesota SROs receive more training to respond to active shooter and other external threats than to counsel and mentor students, according to the study. It also says officers lack grounding in juvenile case law.

"Those opposed to law enforcement presence in schools contend there is little evidence to demonstrate that SRO programs reduce illegal or disruptive behavior," the study said. "By the time SROs became common in the late 1990s, juvenile involvement in crime was already declining both inside and outside of schools."

The lines of action and response have only become grayer in an age of social media.

The ACLU sued the Minnewaska School District after a school resource officer demanded a sixth-grader hand over her Facebook password to review private messages between her and a boy.

The girl had initially posted complaints about a hall monitor and the school disciplined her for that, Nelson said, but administrators later learned she had been chatting with a boy about sex so they brought in the officer.

The case was settled in 2014 with the district agreeing to pay $70,000 and change its policies and training to better protect students' privacy, the ACLU said.

But school officials say the mere presence of school resource officers is a de-escalation technique. Laura Olson, director of the security emergency management department at St. Paul Public Schools, said SROs undergo special training and have more experience working with youth and take a proactive approach to develop relationships with the students.

"They have a uniform on and they look like a police officer," Olson said, "but in many respects they really do work as youth workers. Students see them as a counselor type person where they might go and talk to about certain things that are going on in their lives."

As for the stun gun used in the Central High arrest, Olson declined to provide additional student discipline information, citing privacy laws. She said the St. Paul district is not investigating the incident and that it typically trusts law enforcement judgment when it comes to handling criminal activity.

"We don't dictate the level of force that they use because they are law enforcement officers and that's where the line is very clear," she added.