Photo credit: Progress Illinois
By Sabrina Holcomb
School security guard Stacie Taborn Mentor hopes the spirit of the new federal guidelines on the appropriate use of police in schools will help schools keep more kids in class and out of the criminal justice system.
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“I used to work as a school safety officer for the New York City Police Department,” says Mentor, “and in hindsight, I wish the nature of my job hadn’t required me to arrest some of the students I did. At the time, the school-to-prison pipeline wasn’t common knowledge. We didn’t know how one arrest could change the path of a student’s life. Schools weren’t putting it together.”
Zero-tolerance discipline policies that fueled the widespread use of school-based police—and the willingness of schools to abdicate their responsibilities—has led to a rise in the number of students referred to law enforcement for non-violent offenses that would have once merited a trip to the principal’s office or a stint in study hall.
Amidst fierce debate over the role of the 43,000 school resource officers (SROs) and other sworn police officers and the additional 39,000 security guards working in the nation’s schools, the Departments of Education and Justice have released guidelines and resources to help schools better “safeguard students’ civil rights”—placing responsibility for maintaining basic school discipline in the hands of trained educators rather than law enforcement.
Today, Mentor works directly for the school system as a high school security guard in Montclair, New Jersey, where keeping kids in school is paramount—and she is much happier.
She references one incident when a difficult but likeable student became loud and belligerent, refusing to follow school policy by signing in after arriving late.
“He was yelling and cursing at us, says Mentor, “but he’s a good person at heart, so we let him vent. It took us a half an hour to get him to the principal’s office but we treated him with respect. Turns out, he was traumatized by something that happened the night before. We told him, we understand and we’re here for you. The extra time and effort was worth it.”
To doubters who question whether such behavior should be tolerated, Mentor agrees that students should be held accountable and that some schools face significant challenges balancing the need for safety with their duty to educate every student. But she counters that a situation that could have ended in an arrest or out-of-school suspension ultimately ended in the student graduating.
That’s the preferred outcome, agrees Peter Teller, a middle school counselor who is active in the movement for equity in discipline in Oregon’s Salem-Keizer school district. “We’d be much further ahead in doing what’s best for our students, particularly students of color, if we could separate the notion that school safety and school policing are one and the same. My hope is that the guidelines can help more districts get there.”
Given the number of responders that form a discipline team in some schools—administrators, counselors, school security guards, and SROs, among others—both Mentor and Teller agree that a clear definition of roles for educators and security personnel is critical.
“When schools use security guards and/or SROs, it has to be a thoughtful mix,” observes Mentor, who says that, ideally, discipline infractions are handled at the school level by educators and administrators, while school security guards advise administration and the SRO in the case of a serious offense or crime and also neutralize situations that pose an immediate threat.
Mentor reports that working in a diverse, progressive district where school staff are able to have a dialogue about sensitive issues, attend workshops on topics like unraveling racism, and prioritize building positive relationships with students actually helps her do her job and has resulted in fewer referrals.
Teller is also proud of his district’s record, crediting Salem-Keizer’s nationally recognized threat assessment model and Memorandum of Understanding with the police department for the low number of charges resulting from school-related discipline situations.
To help address discipline on his own campus, Teller introduced restorative practices that use peer mediation and conflict resolution. He also directed his school’s attention to the disproportionate number of Latino students being disciplined, drafted a “21st century school climate manifesto” for his school website, and co-presented a session on discipline disparities and the school-to-prison pipeline for an NEA leadership conference.
It’s important that we’re having these conversations, affirms Mentor, “because it pays off in the end. We have to make a conscious effort to create school environments that are safe and supportive. These are our kids—we can’t throw them out.”