Schools are no doubt safer by the presence of uniformed police, but that doesn't mean the officers can be in charge. The principal is ultimately responsible for protecting every student and, as a recent Times report reveals, too many of them disregard the rights of students and allow misconduct to be treated as a crime.
A playground incident at Riviera Middle School in St. Petersburg is a prime example. As described in the reporting of Times writers Tom Marshall and Jonathan Abel, two 14-year-old students knocked down another student and stole his $2 in lunch money and a handful of candy. Not waiting on parents to arrive, the school resource officer interrogated the teenagers and arrested them for what he deemed to be felony strong-arm robbery.
People need not feel sympathy for these unruly middle school students to appreciate the implications of the Riviera encounter. The perpetrators had been caught and were in no position to harm any other students, yet the principal let police call the shots. Together, the principal and police then ignored the legitimate interests of the students and their parents in the process. Maybe the students should ultimately have been charged with a crime, but there is little evidence the principal considered any other option.
This is the other edge of the school police sword. Their presence is valuable, even a necessity on some campuses, but criminal charges should be a last resort for most campus activities, and Florida law is supposed to protect children who might be interrogated without the knowledge of their parents. In part because the law provides no penalties for law enforcement officials, those restrictions are often violated.
The laws that protect children from coercive police interrogation and require parental notification need, at a minimum, to be strengthened and clarified. Absent immediate danger to other students, police can always wait for a child's guardian. One other remedy is simple: Require that all juvenile interviews be video recorded. That way, no one is later in the dark.
Beyond the law, police agencies and schools need to do a better job at defining their roles. Officers who are assigned to duty at schools need better screening and training, and those who judge success by the number of street arrests have no business walking the halls of a school.
School officials also must accept responsibility of their own. Some school administrators, as Marshall and Abel discovered, put no restraints on resource officers. The reporters even found that principals sometimes let police officers listen in on conversations with students, undermining the legal rights of students and their parents.
Robert Evans, a circuit judge in Orange and Osceola counties who has fought for reform, sees what happens to students when schoolyard fights become crimes. "They won't be able to get a job, they won't be able to go to college," Evans told the Times. "They're screwed for life."
The rate of student arrest in Pinellas and Hillsborough schools exceeds the state average in ways that ought to cause elected School Board members to be asking questions. Maybe students in these counties are more dangerous and need more attention from law enforcement, but maybe the schools are simply turning to officers for matters that should handled by educators. The students deserve some answers.