Tuesday, February 07, 2023

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Parents are not the only ones frightened. Many poor and minority children--even those enrolled in the schools for which they are districted--face intimidating and demoralizing tactics from the moment they walk through the school-house doors. Even though many saw the stepped-up security efforts Time called for in 1973 as extreme and controversial, current standards show that these efforts are now common-place.

In fact, thousands of public school students enter the school-house gates today by passing a security clearance post manned by uniformed personnel, forcing them to endure physical examination by a body scanner and to experience intrusive use of metal detector wands and school bag checks--and this all occurs before homeroom. As if these students were clearing a military checkpoint in a conflict zone, school personnel violate students' personal space and autonomy as a matter of course and routinely ignore their privacy, and a presumption of suspicion abounds. The message is clear: such students are the enemy, cannot be trusted, and are in need of surveillance and forcible scrutiny.

A new wave of special security forces within the schools, School Resource Officers (SROs), employs these strategies. In part supported by funds from the U.S. Department of Justice, SROs allegedly exist to play an important multifaceted role that includes serving as counselor, teacher, and community liaison. However, for those of us who have interacted with such officers, we might more aptly describe their role as a double agent. That is, SROs suggest they are school staff serving as a resource to youth, but more often, they serve as a unique arm of the police force, one that has nearly all of the privileges of law enforcement but has not historically been held to the same legal standards.

In these ways, SROs add to the oppressive environment that poor and minority youth experience in public schools, also known as Education on Lockdown. Representing youth in a law school clinic in Knoxville, Tennessee, I saw how SROs worked in tandem with armed police officers, which included sharing office space, incident report forms, and information. They routinely monitored halls and engaged in joint investigative and other law enforcement functions together. However, because many courts consider SROs school staff rather than law enforcement, schools often deploy SROs to take actions that the Constitution would not permit police to undertake on the scene without a warrant or probable cause. Thus, SROs might search students, secure statements from them, and then turn it all over to police who stood nearby. A 2009 Memorandum of Understanding by Knoxville's school district, police forces, and juvenile court demonstrates the unitary vision of police, prosecutors, and SROs in that locality.

St. Louis-area youth have reported that they feel similarly intimidated and demoralized by school staff and security officers who walk school halls with squawking radios, while they bark orders to students and treat them like criminals. In fact, the tell-all account of Lieutenant Colonel Charles E. McCrary Sr. in his self-published book, Urban School Security from Behind the Scenes, supports the oppressive environment these students paint. McCrary is the former head of school security for the City of St. Louis, and he currently runs the firm McCrary Security Consultants, Inc.: Home of the B.O.S.S. Force, which claims to specialize in research and development of Successful Urban School Security Operations. Although it is clear from his book that McCrary is a caring and compassionate individual, his self-reported policing practices within St. Louis's public schools suggest insufficient concern for student privacy or probable cause, even working at the behest of police.

Indeed, schools have all but opened their doors to law enforcement in more direct ways, and not only for purposes of protecting against impending violent activity. Our young clients in Knoxville endured frantic drug sweeps of their lockers, involving barking dogs in the middle of the school day, as well as frightening lock-downs while military-like troops of officers were deployed in any effort to keep schools safe. They are not alone in living through such disturbing episodes. At-risk youth across the country share such reports. For instance, one fifteen-year-old recounted, I thought there was a terrorist attack or something, after a SWAT team conducted a drug raid at his school and pointed weapons at students who failed to heed orders. Such operations disrupt educational activities in poor schools in ways more privileged youth do not experience, and exposure to such unpredictable and traumatic events undoubtedly leaves a lasting impression on these youth--not entirely different from the damaging effects of living through other wartime activities.

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