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Texas officer loses job over student body slam. Should we rethink police in schools?


Should police officers be patrolling schools?

Do officers assigned to schools have adequate training in how to defuse hallway squabbles or deal with truculent teens without resorting to force?  Do they have the experience to recognize a serious threat versus teen bravado?

Many of the officers fired for overreacting are young themselves. As former DeKalb DA J. Tom Morgan, author of "Ignorance Is No Defense: A Teenager's Guide to Georgia Law, " once told me, " Younger officers in particular can get into an escalating power play with teens."

These questions are being asked more and more as cellphone videos capture police using extreme physical force to restrain students. (We discussed one such video here.)

The latest viral video is out of San Antonio, Texas, where a police officer slammed a 12-year-old girl to the ground. The video cost officer Joshua Kehm his job this week.

On Monday, the San Antonio Independent School District fired Kehm for his actions intervening in an aggressive argument between Janissa Valdez and another girl at Rhodes Middle School. A video shows Kehm slamming the sixth grader to the ground in front of a crowd of students watching the altercation between the girls.

In a statement on the termination, San Antonio Superintendent Pedro Martinez  said:

As educators, it is our responsibility to provide a safe environment for all of our students, We understand that situations can sometimes escalate to the point of requiring a physical response; however, in this situation we believe that the extent of the response was absolutely unwarranted. Additionally, the officer’s report was inconsistent with the video and it was also delayed, which is not in accordance with the general operating procedures of the police department. We want to be clear that we will not tolerate this behavior.

We know that this incident does not define our District police department, which is dedicated to serving and protecting our school community. We all want to make sure this kind of incident does not occur again, and we will seek to identify areas where improvement may be needed.”

APS is ending its use of Atlanta police this summer, opting to form and train its own security force. Atlanta’s decision reflects a national rethinking of whether police – with their law enforcement training to identity and stop criminals and criminal behaviors  – mesh with school systems in the business of building connections with students.

Atlanta school board chairman Courtney English said schools need "people who can build relationships without having that strict law enforcement component." Speaking earlier this year to the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists, APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said, "Street cops in public schools do not necessarily make for the best, caring environment.”

According to the AJC:

District records show officers used some type of force --- including pepper spray, stun guns and physical "takedowns" --- in Atlanta schools 22 times last year.

The number of officers in schools has increased in the past decade. Cobb County put school resource officers in all of its middle schools last year. DeKalb has officers in some of its elementary schools, and since 2014 has added 10 officers to its force, which is now at 72. Gwinnett County's budget for school resource officers has more than doubled in the past five years, from $2.2 million to about $4.85 million. Gwinnett, which was criticized a decade ago for not having enough officers, increased its force from 23 officers in 2006 to 41 in 2014. Clayton has about 30 officers.

School resource officer leaders defend their increased presence, saying an adult in a school hallway discourages potential violence. But confrontations can result when officers step in. During the last school year, metro Atlanta school districts investigated more than two dozen complaints of excessive force as officers were detaining or arresting a student or intruder.

APS’s decision has led to  criticism from Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed who said, "Everyone knows APS is independent. They're expressing their independence. But I think they're going to make the children of the Atlanta school system far less safe.”

Here is the video that led to the officer's firing in San Antonio this week:


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.