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San Francisco Takes the Lead in Defining Role of School Police, Sets Limits on Interrogations, Arrests

New data shows black students are disproportionate targets of enforcement.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Pal Teravagimov via Shutterstock.com

 

As debate over harsh school discipline heats up nationwide, San Francisco is taking a lead role among big cities by formally limiting the role of police on campuses and requiring specific types of training for school-based officers.

The California city known for its progressive politics is putting the final touches this month on a new agreement, or memorandum of understanding, between the city’s police department and schools that’s designed to further restrain law enforcement involvement in routine discipline and ensure that arrests of students are a last resort.

“This is really extraordinary work,” said Matt Haney, a San Francisco Board of Education commissioner, at a meeting of the board this month. “We realize that there is an important role for police officers on our campuses, but only in very specific, narrow situations.”

Karn Saetang, an organizer with Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth in San Francisco, said: “We’re putting the responsibility for student behavior back where it belongs, with educators, students and parents, not with police. When police get involved in school discipline, it sends all the wrong messages to students.”

Coleman Advocates, which pushes the city to fund children’s services, helped draft the agreement, along with Public Counsel, the nation’s largest public interest law firm, which has been involved in reforming discipline policies in various cities.  

Two years ago, an armed uniformed police officer was summoned to a school to deal with a 5-year-old who was having a tantrum, action that further upset the child and his family, according to Coleman Advocates.

The new, more restrictive agreement between San Francisco police and schools says: “Police involvement should not be requested in a situation that can be safely and appropriately handled by the district’s internal disciplinary procedures.”

The document was approved by the board of education in San Francisco on Jan. 14 — with the proviso that the San Francisco Police Department assent to restoration of language that makes police training and other requirements mandatory, not suggested. The softer language was added shortly before the board voted on Jan. 14.   

The San Francisco Police Department did not respond to calls for comment. School administrators who have been working with police said they didn’t think the restoration of stricter language would be “a deal breaker.” San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr told ABC News 7 earlier this month that kids helped draft the agreement. "I think it’s important that we demonstrate to the kids that what’s important to them is important to us, too,” he said. 

The agreement spells out requirements for graduated steps before a student can be arrested, and details limits on how arrests are to be carried out on campuses, so they are not disruptive or public, if possible, and are not conducted in connection with behavior allegedly committed outside school unless students are in danger.   

Police have discretion but “shall make every effort” not to arrest and refer students to probation authorities until a student commits a third offense after prior admonishments and counseling for low-level infractions. These infractions could include minor school fights that have sometimes been criminalized as battery, battery against a school employee, resisting arrest, disturbing the peace and possession of marijuana for personal use.

The agreement also requires that officers refrain from questioning detained students for at least an hour or until parents have “sufficient time to travel” to a campus from their jobs or home.  

“I think this clause is very important — that students are questioned in the presence of their parents,” said Sandra Lee Fewer, president of the board of education.