Over the past several years, there's been a rise in the number of law enforcement officers taking up residence in public schools. This rise corresponds with the proliferation of zero-tolerance policies. Combined, these two factors have resulted in criminalization of acts that were once nothing more than violations of school policies, something usually handled by school administrators. As infractions have morphed into criminal acts, the severity of law enforcement "liaison" responses has also escalated.
Here's a recent example of the severity of the response greatly outweighing the actual infraction.
The incident started when a Delaware State Police trooper, who was on assignment as a school resource officer in the Cape Henlopen School District, questioned the third-grader and a fifth-grader while investigating the theft of $1.
According to court papers, the questioning was so intense, complete with threats of the children being sent to a juvenile facility for lying, that the 8-year-old — who was not a suspect — burst into tears. His parents pulled him out of school because of the January 2008 incident and filed a lawsuit in January 2010 charging the officer violated the child’s rights.
The theft of a dollar shouldn't have warranted much more than a visit to the principal's office, if that. But, because of these policies, the school automatically turned it over to a state trooper
, who then interrogated two children, presumably attempting to get the 8-year-old to testify against the fifth-grader. Unfortunately, incidents like these are far from rare.
- A water balloon fight towards the end of the school year results in seven students arrested.
- A high school student who changed another student's last name to something inappropriate in the school yearbook is arrested and facing first degree property damage charges, a felony.
- A 14-year-old student is arrested on two charges of "disrupting the educational process" and one count of "obstructing an officer" after wearing an NRA shirt to class -- something that did not violate the school dress code, which bans "depictions of violence" but not guns.
- In Mississippi, kids have been arrested (and incarcerated) for "dress code violations, flatulence, profanity and disrespect."
- In Stockton, CA, a 5-year-old with ADHD had his hands and feet zip-tied by the on-duty officer while he waited for the parents to show up. The child was then charged with "battery on a police officer."
- A cop who was not on duty at a Washington, DC school gave a 10-year-old student a concussion when he "grabbed the back of [the student's] head and slammed his head forward into the table." The student had been sent to the cafeteria for not participating in music class.
- A diabetic student who fell asleep in class claims the school police officer slammed her face into a filing cabinet before arresting her and taking her to jail.
There's more. That's just a sampling. This all builds up to the inevitable end result of cops vs. students, as detailed in this wrongful death suit
Denys Lopez Moreno sued Officer Daniel Alvarado, Police Chief John Page and the Northside Independent School District in September 2011 for the death of her 14-year-old son, Derek Lopez.
The incident unfolded on Nov. 12, 2010, when Lopez allegedly exited a school bus and, in view of Alvarado, punched another student. Lopez ignored Alvarado's order to freeze and fled the scene with the school officer tailing him in a patrol car, according to the amended complaint.
With Lopez hiding in a shed at a nearby home, Alvarado drove back to the scene of the fight but allegedly refused to give up the search.
"Ignoring his supervisor's orders to 'stay with the victim and get the information from him,' Alvarado placed the second boy into the patrol car and sped into the neighborhood to search for Derek," the complaint states. Local homeowners then directed Alvarado to the shed, Moreno claimed.
"In violation of NISD police department procedures, Alvarado drew his weapon immediately after exiting the patrol car," the complaint states. "With his gun drawn, he rushed through the gate and into the back yard. Within seconds from arriving at the residence, Alvarado shot and killed the unarmed boy hiding in the shed."
Officer Alvarado disobeyed direct orders and
school policy in order to pursue an unarmed teen, ultimately ending his life. Alvarado claims he fired at the student because he felt the teen "was coming after him" when the door to the shed the student was hiding in was pushed open and hit him in the face.
But the teen wasn't a threat at any moment up until that point, according to Officer Alvarado himself. Tracking down the teen to a shed in someone's yard, he told the homeowner that the boy "posed no threat" to the homeowner. He also testified that if he thought the teen was a threat he would have called for backup.
Despite these assurances and his own belief
that the teen posed no threat, he approached the shed with his weapon drawn. The unexpected swing of the door suddenly turned the unarmed teen into a threat, something Alvarado felt could only be mitigated by shooting.
The whole situation might be deemed "unfortunate" if it wasn't for Alvarado's disciplinary record, which calls into question why he was still employed by the police department, much less allowed to work in a school.
"In approximately a four (4) year period leading up to the shooting, defendant Alvarado had been reprimanded sixteen (16) times," according to the complaint. "Specifically, he had been reprimanded for insubordination and failure to follow supervisors' directives seven (7) times. Due to his poor service record, Alvarado was suspended without pay on five (5) occasions. On May 21, 2008, Alvarado was recommended for termination by Page. Despite being recommended for termination for insubordination and for refusal to follow supervisor directives, Alvarado remained on the force without remedial training."
There's the other problem with bringing police officers into schools. Law enforcement agencies have earned the reputation over the years for protecting their own and allowing "rogue" officers to go largely unpunished. Termination is rare and prosecution even more so. When you turn over low-grade disciplinary issues to law enforcement, you run the very real risk of handing a student over to a cop like Alvarado -- someone who's been slapped on the wrist multiple times and sent back into the general population.
On one hand, you have schools with zero-tolerance policies. On the other, you have law enforcement agencies with all the tolerance in the world. And in the middle, you have kids as young as five being zip tied and charged with battering an officer and unarmed teens being pursued and killed over fistfights.
School administrators are wilfully handing their students over to law enforcement members that aren't even properly vetted by their own departments and then using "zero tolerance policies" to absolve themselves of the dismal results. There seems to be no real push to roll these policies back or for administrations to take charge of student discipline again, so odds are this will get a whole lot worse for students before it gets any better, much to the detriment of the next generation.