New guidelines for officers in schools

Police officers assigned to help keep order in schools need to restrict themselves to dealing with lawbreakers and leave day-to-day discipline to teachers and administrators.

That’s the basic conclusion of a special task force appointed by state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, and it is a useful one. If the state Board of Education approves, the findings will be incorporated in statewide standards governing the role of police officers in our schools.

As with the focus on police shootings after officers were caught on video shooting suspects in highly questionable circumstances, the issue of cops in schools came to the forefront because of an incident that was filmed. The video showed a deputy at Columbia’s Spring Valley High School forcibly removing a student from her chair when she refused to surrender her cell phone and then dragging her across the floor and removing her from the classroom.

Both the girl extricated by the officer and a classmate who filmed the incident on her phone were arrested. But that was far from the end of the story.

The video was posted online and exploded nationally, sparking a wide-ranging debate about resource officers in schools. In the end, the deputy at Spring Valley High was fired.

But the debate continued, and Spearman, to her credit, vowed to examine the issue in depth, which resulted in the formation of special task force. The outcome, we hope, will be an unambiguous deliniation of the duties of the more than 600 law enforcement officers estimated to be working in S.C. schools and the limits to their authority in regard to school discipline.

Proposed policy changes include new definitions of misconduct involving electronic devices. The mere possession of a cell phone in class would not justify calling a resource officer. A student would have to be engaged in a criminal activity while using a cell phone or other device before a resource officer could intervene.

The panel also called for better training for educators and officers alike. Training would include instruction on how to de-escalate tense situations with students so they don’t rise to the level of a criminal offense.

S.C. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, an attorney who represents the two students involved in the Spring Valley incident, noted that “law enforcement is a backstop, not a first stop.” We agree, calling in law enforcement officers in a school disciplinary case should be a last resort.

If the Board of Education gives final approval, the new regulations will go to the Legislature for its approval when lawmakers return in January. We hope the regulations can be approved without getting bogged down in a protracted debate.

The new school year will be well underway, and schools across the state need sensible guidelines to ensure school safety and protect students while also making sure that law enforcement officers don’t cross the line.