By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
It has been almost a month since a 16-year-old Black female student was up-ended and dragged from a Spring Valley High School, S.C. classroom by a police officer assigned to the facility.
The officer, Ben Fields, was the School Resource Officer (SRO) and was summoned to the classroom by the teacher and an administrator after the student refused to give up a cell phone she was using during class.
Video of the incident, captured by her fellow students, went viral and sparked national outrage over a Black girl being brutalized by a White police officer in the Richland, County school setting, a suburb of Charleston.
The incident exposed the growing concern over excessive force by police officers against African-Americans, especially deadly force where mostly unarmed and young Black men have been shot to death.
Officers Fields has been fired, but the nation and the Black community are waiting for the fallout from issue.
The incident also raised questions about the role and responsibility of the thousands of police officers who serve as School Resource Officers.
In recent years, civil rights and education activists have voiced their concerns about the disproportionate number of Black students who have been arrested by police officers and criminally charged for offenses, they believe, should have been handled by school officials.
Many public school systems across the country have had SROs as added security in the schools, even before the Columbine High School student shooting in Colorado and mass shootings of elementary school students in Sandy Hook, Connecticut several years ago.
Many urban school districts employed SROs and even metal detectors and other security devices, in the wake of violence among students.
There are 15,000 SROs around the country, but the National Association of School Resource Officers has a membership of 5,000, who are sworn police officers walking the halls of the nation’s public schools to secure the building and aid in educating students.
NASRO is based in Hoover, Alabama. Nationally, most states have a chapter, and there are nine regional districts of the organization.
Founded in 1991, the organization is open to school-based law enforcement officers, school administrators, and school security/safety professionals working as partners to protect students, school faculty and staff, and the schools they attend.
Don Bridges is NASRO’s First Vice President and he is an SRO at Franklin High in Reisterstown, Maryland, a Baltimore suburb.
The school, Bridges said is a racially and economically diverse facility which houses some 1,300 students, 300 teachers and staff and support personnel.
Bridges has been a police officer for 24 years, 13 of them as an SRO, He is African-American, and was recently elected president of NASRO. He will assume that job officially next July for a two-year term.
Bridges said he was horrified and dismayed by the incident in South Carolina and noted that such cases are rare and “should not have happened. Most SROs are well-trained and will work to avoid situations like this one.”
“SROs are not responsible for school discipline. We are there primarily to secure the school and to ensure the safety of the students and staff,” said Bridges. “Even in the most challenging situation, including a non-compliant student, there are other resources to respond to the situation other than force.”
“This was not a 911 situation … this was a 311 situation,” said Bridges. “I would have called the parents. There are teachers, counselors, school psychologist … a janitor or someone who has interacted with that student and could have communicated with her to de-escalate the situation.”
Bridges is a hostage negotiator, who is trained to acquire communication and gathering intelligence as the first protocols in deciding on a means to resolve any situation of non-compliance with students in more dangerous situations.
But he said that apart from his police training, one of the positives of having SROs in a public school setting, is giving law enforcement and students the opportunity to interact, so a personal connection and dialogue can be attained to lower distrust and build bridges.
“SROs have an educational role. I teach an anti-drug class with up to 30 kids,” said Bridges. “I talk from a law enforcement perspective about the issue.”
Bridges said that he and fellow officers have an after school “open gym” period to invite students to play basketball with the officers to build rapport and dialogue.
Bridges said that he interacts with the 300 plus freshman who enter his high school each year. By their senior year, “I know most of them. Most of those kids I will never have a problem with.”
Brawls and other traditional school offenses, Bridges said, do not warrant arrest and creation of a criminal record for students, unless it involves extreme behavior.
“Most students are not charged … there is no court involved,” he said. “We are mediators in the situation. This should be a teachable moment to help kids make good choices to avoid trouble. We feel supervision is needed … this helps us reduce the tensions and ensure a reduction in the incident recurring.”
He said most apply their skills as sworn law enforcement officers,trained by their local departments and agencies like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
He said SROs will be the first line of defense in case schools are attacked by individuals wishing to inflict harm on students and faculty, So they are also schooled in hostage negotiations and securing and evacuating schools in case of such acts of mayhem.
They also rely on training supplied by NASRO as a source of security and stability in the schools. There is also agreement and protocol between the SROs and schools to ensure they coordinate their roles effectively.
“A school is like a small city and it’s a busy place,” said Bridges. “When I get tired after going in so many directions, and feel discouraged, when I interact, I get a charge and I am reminded why I am there. I am doing this for the kids. No amount of time or money is enough. We owe it to them to keep them safe.”
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