South Carolina

Spring Valley SRO incident prompts broader look at officers’ role in schools

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Richland School District 2 Superintendent Debbie Hamm talk about the importance of school resource officers with The State newspaper on Friday.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and Richland School District 2 Superintendent Debbie Hamm talk about the importance of school resource officers with The State newspaper on Friday.

After cameras captured a Richland County sheriff’s deputy forcefully removing a Spring Valley High School student from her desk to the floor, local and national opinions erupted over not just what happened in that math class, but what happens – and what should happen – in the more than 84,000 schools around the nation that have a security presence on campus.

Numerous people in education, law enforcement and beyond have spoken out, saying the clear function of school resource officers is not to intervene in routine discipline matters in schools, such as in the Spring Valley incident, which reportedly stemmed from the student’s refusal to surrender her cellphone and leave the classroom.

More broadly, though, what happened at Spring Valley has presented an urgent opportunity to evaluate the role of officers in schools. Important questions include where and how to draw the line between disciplinary and criminal matters, how to delineate specific duties and procedures for specific players in schools, and how to address the deep issues that cause students to act out.

“Something went wrong (at Spring Valley),” South Carolina education superintendent Molly Spearman said. “We need to get to the root cause of it and make sure that everyone learns from this, not just at Spring Valley, but all across the state.”

Resource officers’ No. 1 role is to ensure the safety of students, Spearman said. She, along with Richland 2 Superintendent Debbie Hamm, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott and other local and statewide leaders say they believe resource officers continue to have an important and appropriate function inside schools.

“The instance of violent crime and guns and those things in our schools, they’re relatively rare, but when they happen you want the right person there to deal with them,” Hamm said.

Blurred lines and mission creep

But “there is a mission creep problem where that safety role can morph into getting involved in routine discipline,” said Josh Gupta-Kagan, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

“They shouldn’t be called in when someone won’t put their cellphone away,” said Gupta-Kagan, who teaches juvenile justice and child welfare law. “... I very strongly suspect there are many other issues in which school resource officers are called in to handle routine discipline issues.”

Officers should learn to say no if asked to intervene inappropriately, Gupta-Kagan said.

“School resource officers should be trained to decline invitations to intervene when situations don’t involve serious threats or more serious crimes,” he said. And, he said, teachers and administrators should be discouraged from calling on resource officers for most issues, he said.

Teachers and administrators “have a wide range of school consequences they can impose on a disobedient student,” he said.

A contract between the Richland County Sheriff’s department and Richland 2 outlines three broad duties of resource officers: to perform law enforcement duties such as handling assaults, thefts, threats, drug incidents and other crimes; to serve as a source of counseling for students on law-related issues; and to teach law-related topics to students.

The contract specifically states that an officer “shall not act as a school disciplinarian, as disciplining students is a school responsibility.”

But officers’ role in such issues is muddied by a South Carolina law that essentially criminalizes discipline issues in schools.

“The fact of the matter is there is this continuum,” Hamm said. “It’s not clear what is one or the other (discipline or criminal matters) when you get to the edges of those things. And then when you have such a broad law, there is an even greater gray area.”

The state’s statute for “disturbing schools” makes it a misdemeanor criminal offense to “interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college.”

The two students involved in the Spring Valley incident – the young woman who was pulled from her desk and another female student, Niya Kenny, who was arrested after shouting at the deputy and school employees to stop – have been charged with disturbing schools.

“When you’ve got nonviolent disobedience, you’ve got a teenager acting obnoxiously – yes, that violates the law,” Gupta-Kagan said. “But I don’t think it’s good law enforcement policy, and I don’t think it’s good education policy (to involve the officer).”

Disturbing schools is the third most frequent referral offense that lands children in the South Carolina’s juvenile justice system, according to state Department of Juvenile Justice statistics from 2013-14.

Nearly 1,200 disturbing schools cases were generated statewide during that period, including 98 cases from Richland County.

Lott calls the state’s disturbing schools statute “the worst law ever passed.”

Now, evaluate training and resources

Both Lott and Hamm said they soon will be convening their major players, including resource officers, administrators and other educators, to review and refresh the policies and procedures already in place regarding student discipline and evaluate what changes can be made in light of what happened at Spring Valley.

The process of evaluating discipline procedures began in Richland 2 over a year ago, in fact, with a task force dedicated to the issue, Hamm said.

At the state level, Spearman said she plans to assemble a task force of educators, law enforcement officials and parents to discuss the best practices of student discipline codes, policies and procedures and consider handing down guidelines to individual school districts.

“Why do you intervene? How far do you need to go? How do you not escalate a situation?” are all issues to be discussed and delineated, Spearman said. “I think we all could use a refresher course in that.”

Richland County’s school resource officers are trained through the state criminal justice academy, and many are given the option to attend additional professional development training along with school educators.

That training should include “at least some concepts related to understanding the teen brain and adolescent emotional issues, all those things you’re dealing with in the school environment,” said Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, which offers a variety of training courses around the nation.

The Alabama-based association has offered to conduct a complimentary statewide training course in South Carolina in the wake of the Spring Valley incident, Canady said.

In addition to officer training, schools and school districts should be taking this moment to consider the availability of “wraparound services” for students facing discipline issues, said Bernadette Hampton, president of the South Carolina Education Association, a union representing public school teachers in the state.

Those services include, beyond resource officers, access to and relationships with guidance counselors, nurses, mental health professionals, teachers and administrators, said Hampton, who has been a math teacher for more than two decades at Battery Creek High School in Beaufort.

“When a student acts out or misbehaves, there’s a reason,” Hampton said. “If we have the proper resources (and training) to address those factors that cause those certain behaviors ... then that will minimize and not escalate certain situations.”

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.