Do cops belong in Michigan classrooms?
Last year a disturbing cell phone video caused national outrage over the presence of police in schools. It shows a South Carolina cop grabbing a student's desk, flipping it over, and dragging her body out of class. You can hear the officer saying "give me your hands" over and over, followed by the student's voice saying "I'm hurt."
This video got us wondering how officers are trained to work in schools. With the new semester about to begin, I decided to find out.
I spent a day shadowing a school resource officer at Elizabeth Ann Johnson High School in Mt. Morris, Michigan. It's a small town just north of Flint.
At first glance, E. A. Johnson looks like your average public high school – it's got an auditorium, sports fields, and a huge cafeteria where all the kids here get free lunch. But something did stand out: the police patrol car parked right out front. You couldn't enter the building without walking past it.
It belongs to Officer Bill Baughman, who greeted me right inside the door wearing his full police uniform. With handcuffs. And a gun. In a school.
Baughman is part of a growing trend in the U.S. of putting police in schools, but the history behind this practice is hard to pinpoint. The very first school to welcome an officer is said to have been right here in Flint in the 1950s, but no one seems to know which school that was.
The goal is to promote positive relationships between police and the community. But they also serve as a protective factor in case something like an active shooter situation were to occur. Most of Baughman's time is spent directing traffic, filling out paperwork, and joking with kids in the hallway.
But a couple times a month, Baughman says he does need to step in and arrest a student. It's usually for fighting or drugs (mostly marijuana). He doesn't like doing it at all. His voice cracked as he explained, "It's difficult. It's almost like having to arrest your own child."
When an officer needs to intervene and make an arrest, this is where things can get tricky. Teachers and school staff in Michigan have really strict rules about how and when they can intervene, including when they can use physical force. Corporal punishment, of course, is illegal. That means you can't just hit a student if they break the rules. But in Michigan, school staff can put their hands on a student using "reasonable" physical force to "maintain order."
But cops? They don't have to follow those rules. "We have our own standards that we go by when using physical force and if the student in this case were to escalate their amount of force, we would have to escalate our amount of force as well to effect that arrest," says Baughman.
Baughman admits there have been times where he's had to use physical force with a student but, thankfully, never to the extent where someone got hurt. "Hopefully that never happens," he said.
It could happen, though. And Rodd Monts from the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan says it does happen – often. "In districts around the state we get complaints frequently about the use of force in certain districts. But without comprehensive data collection it’s difficult to get an accurate picture of how large a problem it is."
Monts says that the use of force by teachers, school staff, and school resource officers isn't tracked on a state level. The Michigan Department of Education told me the same thing. In fact, they don't keep track of police officers in schools at all.
When I asked Baughman what kind of training he had to prepare him to work in schools, the only thing he could think of beyond your standard police officer training is the D.A.R.E. program. It taught him how to interact with kids when talking to them about drugs.
There are trainings available to school resource officers, but none that are mandatory statewide in Michigan. Mo Canady is the executive director for the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO). He feels that training is vital. "Thorough training is so critical to success in that role. The officers should be carefully and properly selected and they should be very well trained."
NASRO offers trainings across the country but Canady says they haven't done very many in Michigan. When I asked him why that is he explained that states make their own decisions about training, and Michigan hasn't asked for much.
So without mandatory training and a rigorous selection process, how do you guarantee schools are paired with someone like Officer Bill Baughman, who really cares about the kids he's working with? You can't, which is one of the reasons police in schools continues to be a controversial issue.
But when the right officer is paired with a school, they can have an impact. "Sometimes [students] have difficulty approaching a police officer or law enforcement for various reasons," says Baughman. "But being able to develop this positive relationship with kids here in schools, they know they can approach me and talk to me about anything."
Nearly all of the experts I spoke with said that if police are going to improve their relationship with communities, it’s got to start with kids.