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NYCLU Statement: Job Description for Police Assigned to Syracuse Schools

Job Description for Police Assigned to Syracuse Schools

NYCLU Statement to Syracuse City School District School Board Meeting – 9/9/09 Last time that I stood here to offer comments to this body, I asked that you to pay careful attention to the need to create policy that clearly laid out the District’s expectations and guidelines for Syracuse police officers stationed in the schools at the District’s invitation. My organization was motivated to action by a disturbing series of reports about incidents involving School Resource Officers at Corcoran, incidents that raised serious questions about the oversight of officers and their disregard for the District’s Code of Conduct. Today I am pleased to say to you and to Superintendent Lowengard that you did pay attention to the problem, and the SRO job description you are about to officially add to this Code of Conduct is an important step forward. We asked for a document clarifying the lines of authority between these officers and school administrators, and you have produced such a document. It is something that should and will be made available, in hard copy and on the district’s website, to all students, teachers, parents and community members concerned about the nexus of safety and education. It is also significant that this document was produced, not via a lawsuit, but by a collaborative process that involved dialogue between my office and the Superintendent, active input from parents and other stakeholders at Corcoran, as well as invited input from stakeholders connected with other schools and quadrants, school board members, and a district-wide Code of Conduct Committee. I am not suggesting that the resulting SRO job description is perfect, or that it includes everything that my organization wanted to see in such a document. However, it is an important step forward, and I want to acknowledge that. Especially important in the final document are the following expectations that the District has for School Information Resource Officers (SIRO’s), now codified in writing for the first time:

  1. SIRO’s are responsible for handling criminal matters within the school while “the principal is responsible for handling all discipline issues” and is “in charge of the building;”      This is a truly crucial distinction. Student discipline matters should not result in criminal consequences unless they clearly involve a serious crime.
  2. SIRO’s should not intervene unless there is “a threat to the safety of an individual or group” or as “requested by the principal.”      I urge you to ensure that this is applied on a case by case basis, and not as a kind of blanket permission for action or based on only assumptions about “potential” threats. We still find this use of the word “potential” problematic in this document.
  3. The training of SIRO’s shall include students rights and responsibilities, SCSD policies and procedures including the Code of Conduct, conflict resolution and diversity issues.      It is important that this training will be developed jointly by SPD and SCSD, and not left solely to police administrators.
  4. SIRO’s “shall refrain from using arrest or physical techniques in non-criminal circumstances, unless it can be justified as absolutely necessary.”      It is my understanding that this was added at the insistence of a member of the Code of Conduct Committee. This was an extremely important addition.
  5. SIRO’s must provide regular and incident-related reports in writing to the principal as well as his police supervisor.      No longer should principals or district administrators be left unaware that students have been restrained or handcuffed by a police officer in a clearly non-criminal situation. Handcuffs are not an educational resource.
  6. There shall be an annual review of the “SIRO’s role and responsibilities.”

These last three elements are probably the most important steps forward, but they also present the greatest challenges for district administrators, to you the members of this Board, and to district stakeholders and community members. This document will only be words on paper if the changes represented within it are not implemented with serious care, if there is no real oversight, if the reporting of incidents is inadequate or selective, or if the review of incident reports is not done in a searching and critical manner. In order for all this effort to improve the climate in our schools and reduce the number of students being needlessly funneled into the criminal justice system, you must ensure that the requirements in this document are attended to. The work is not over. That is the real challenge. It is not enough to say job well done, let’s move on. Instead we must all remain vigilant. Administrators, school board members, union and PTO leaders, student councils, and community advocates must ensure that the reports required in this document are being read and reviewed, that the district summarizes the resulting data so that trends and patterns can be assessed, and that the analysis of this data is discussed publically. The same goes for the information collected in the new form created to document student searches. The addition of this documentation format is another valuable step forward, and can be used to facilitate more transparency, accountability and analysis of the use and conduct of student searches. I urge you to exercise the same vigilance and critical examination of this data. As members of the school board, you have a special responsibility to engage in critical oversight, to demand the data, to ask the tough questions, and propose solutions to related problems. For instance, has anyone ever seriously looked at the correlation between problematic police contact or in-school student arrests and high school drop-out rates? Has anyone beside Twiggy Billue ever really examined the link between exposure to gun violence at home or in the community and problematic incidents at school? Has anyone considered the challenges an in-school arrest could pose to the success of the Say Yes program in one high school versus another? Perhaps the answer is not always police intervention. Now we have a chance to stop, look, listen, and take an educational approach to helping kids we think of as “at-risk.” If we really utilize this new clarity about the roles of police and administrators within our schools, you may find new opportunities for improvement and success that we were unable to envision before. Barrie Gewanter Director, Central NY Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU)  

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