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Editorial: Patrolling the Corridors; Discipline Better Left to Educators

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, there has been much debate over whether placing more police officers in the nation’s schools would make them safer. But there is more to the issue than whether an armed officer could prevent mass mayhem.

As The New York Times reported last week, thousands of school districts around the country already employ “school resource officers,” often hired through federal grants and provided by local law enforcement agencies. Just how effective they are in deterring crime or confronting armed intruders remains unclear. But one effect of their presence seems undeniable: Thousands of students are arrested or given criminal citations every year, many for relatively minor nonviolent offenses that once were the disciplinary province of school administrators — scuffles, truancy and cursing at teachers, for instance.

“There is no evidence that placing officers in the schools improves safety,” Denise C. Gottfredson, an expert on school violence at the University of Maryland, told the Times. “And it increases the number of minor behavior problems that are referred to the police, pushing kids into the criminal system.”

This may sound more than vaguely familiar to readers of Jim Kenyon’s column in the Valley News. He has written several times about a January 2012 scuffle involving a few boys at Hartford Middle School that resulted in the school resource officer bringing criminal charges against two eighth-graders. The disorderly conduct charge against one of them was dropped only after his father hired a lawyer to represent the boy in juvenile court. “When I was growing up, principals and teachers handled the discipline in the schools,” the boy’s father told Kenyon afterward. “I don’t know why they need to call in police for small stuff like this.”

Perhaps the answer is that when police are already a day-to-day presence in schools, they become de facto disciplinarians for the kind of relatively minor offenses that they would not be summoned to respond to in the normal course of events.

This worrie s not only youth advocates and civil rights groups, but judges as well. Wallace B. Jefferson, chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, told the Legislature in that state last month, “We are criminalizing our children for nonviolent offenses.” As Michael Nash, presiding judge of juvenile court in Los Angeles, put it: “You have to differentiate between the security issue and the discipline issue. Once the kids get involved in the court system, it’s a slippery slope downhill.” And if the result of that descent is a criminal record, it can have severe repercussions for future employment opportunities or military service.

One problem is that police officers are typically trained to deal with adult behavior, especially of the criminal variety, and may have little insight into child development issues. “The good officers recognize the difference between a scuffle and a true assault,” Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, told the Times. To his credit, Canady advocates training in adolescent psychology and mediation for officers assigned to schools. Certainly any school district that employs a resource officer ought to insist on such training.

Beyond that, however, is the question of whether an educational community is the right place for an armed agent of the state to be stationed. We don’t think so. The freedom to grow and test boundaries that is essential to the development of adolescents ought not to be circumscribed by the sense that police officers are potentially watching a student’s every move. It is properly the job of educators to set those boundaries and nurture that growth.