San Francisco takes lead in defining role of school police, sets limits on interrogations, arrests

New data shows black students are disproportionate targets of enforcement

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As debate over harsh school discipline heats up nationwide, San Francisco is taking a lead role among big cities by formally limiting the role of police on campuses and requiring specific types of training for school-based officers.

The California city known for its progressive politics is putting the final touches this month on a new agreement, or memorandum of understanding, between the city’s police department and schools that’s designed to further restrain law enforcement involvement in routine discipline and ensure that arrests of students are a last resort.

“This is really extraordinary work,” said Matt Haney, a San Francisco Board of Education commissioner, at a meeting of the board this month. “We realize that there is an important role for police officers on our campuses, but only in very specific, narrow situations.”

Karn Saetang, an organizer with Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth in San Francisco, said: “We’re putting the responsibility for student behavior back where it belongs, with educators, students and parents, not with police. When police get involved in school discipline, it sends all the wrong messages to students.”

Coleman Advocates, which pushes the city to fund children’s services, helped draft the agreement, along with Public Counsel, the nation’s largest public interest law firm, which has been involved in reforming discipline policies in various cities.  

Two years ago, an armed uniformed police officer was summoned to a school to deal with a 5-year-old who was having a tantrum, action that further upset the child and his family, according to Coleman Advocates.

The new, more restrictive agreement between San Francisco police and schools says: “Police involvement should not be requested in a situation that can be safely and appropriately handled by the district’s internal disciplinary procedures.”

The document was approved by the board of education in San Francisco on Jan. 14 — with the proviso that the San Francisco Police Department assent to restoration of language that makes police training and other requirements mandatory, not suggested. The softer language was added shortly before the board voted on Jan. 14.   

The San Francisco Police Department did not respond to calls for comment. School administrators who have been working with police said they didn’t think the restoration of stricter language would be “a deal breaker.” San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr told ABC News 7 earlier this month that kids helped draft the agreement. "I think it’s important that we demonstrate to the kids that what’s important to them is important to us, too,” he said. 

The agreement spells out requirements for graduated steps before a student can be arrested, and details limits on how arrests are to be carried out on campuses, so they are not disruptive or public, if possible, and are not conducted in connection with behavior allegedly committed outside school unless students are in danger.   

Police have discretion but “shall make every effort” not to arrest and refer students to probation authorities until a student commits a third offense after prior admonishments and counseling for low-level infractions. These infractions could include minor school fights that have sometimes been criminalized as battery, battery against a school employee, resisting arrest, disturbing the peace and possession of marijuana for personal use.

The agreement also requires that officers refrain from questioning detained students for at least an hour or until parents have “sufficient time to travel” to a campus from their jobs or home.  

“I think this clause is very important — that students are questioned in the presence of their parents,” said Sandra Lee Fewer, president of the board of education.

Fewer also insisted that the agreement contain the word “shall” as part of a requirement that school resource officers who are based at schools receive at least one day of free training, sponsored by the district, in methods of ‘restorative’ justice. That’s a regime of in-school discipline the district has adopted in an effort to get students to own up to disruption and problems they’ve caused — and, in turn, receive help to address the roots of their poor behavior. 

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education unveiled federal guidelines for school discipline that Obama Administration officials are urging schools across the country to embrace.  The unprecedented guidelines also emphasize the use of in-school disciplinary practices that limit removal of  a child from the school environment as punishment. The guidelines also emphasize the need for school police training.

In recent years, the administration has expressed concerned about a “school-to-prison pipeline,” or criminalization of adolescent behavior that elevates the risks of youth dropping out and getting into serious legal trouble.

Last week, in North Carolina, civil rights groups filed a 74-page complaint calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in schools in the Raleigh area,  where students and parents have complained about school police abuse — including alleged harassment and unwarranted arrests of African-American students, especially, as well as violent tackling of students, handcuffing and  interrogation of kids without parental consent.  

New data released this month in San Francisco underscores a significant problem with disproportionate arrests of black kids in San Francisco’s schools and the city at large, a problem the board of education says must be addressed. 

African-American minors represent only 8 percent of San Francisco’s students. Yet close to 40 percent of all students arrested on campuses in the past three years were black and 43 percent of all juvenile arrests in the city during those three years were also African-American.  

During the 2011-2012 school year, data also shows, 133 students were arrested on campuses, with 14-year-olds accounting for 31 arrests — the largest number for any age group of students. Kids as young as eight years old were also arrested.

While some of the arrests overall were for serious accusations involving weapons or alleged sexual assaults, the most frequent types of arrests were for broad categories that might have been better handled differently, children’s rights advocates say. The biggest categories of offenses: battery, with 25 arrests; conspiracy, with 21 arrests; and battery on a school employee, with 13 arrests.

In December, school board commissioner Haney called out-of-school suspension rates for black students in San Francisco “shocking.” Black students were 50 percent of all students suspended last year for “willful defiance,” a catch-all category that can range from using foul language to tardiness.

At a school board meeting this month, San Francisco high school student Violet Vasquez told board members she was “overjoyed” to have been involved in the drafting of the new agreement. 

“It creates guidelines to have an easier and more trusting relationship with our SROs (school resource officers),” she said. 

Kevine Boggess, civic engagement director for Coleman Advocates, said: “A lot of the work we do is with African- American and Latino youth who have a lot of negative interaction with the police. We really want to change that dynamic and make schools a safe place for them.”